Teams (world ranking in brackets): Germany (2), Portugal (5), Ghana (24), USA (14)
Germany vs Portugal, Salvador
Ghana vs USA, Natal
Germany vs Ghana, Fortaleza
USA vs Portugal, Manaus
USA vs Germany, Recife
Portugal vs Ghana, Brasilia
Coach: Joachim Low
Captain: Philipp Lahm
World Cup Appearances: 17 (1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990)
Qualified: 1st Group C
Qualification Top Scorer: Mesut Ozil (8)
Germany breezed through qualification for the tournament, the only blemish being a 4-4 draw against Sweden in Berlin. The Germans are very experienced at the world cup, having won it three times and played in every edition since 1950. They have at least made the semi-finals in the last three world cups and are ranked 2 in the world.
The strategy of naming lots of young players for the 2006 world cup has paid dividends for Germany, with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski now the core of the side, with Lahm succeeding Michel Ballack as captain. Lahm is also one of the best fullbacks in the world, and he will provide attacking support. The midfield is one of the best in the world, from Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira in the centre to Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Andre Schurrle and Podolski setting up the forwards. Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and will be hard to score against.
Only two strikers have been named in the preliminary squad, and one of those is Miroslav Klose, who is 35 and is now approaching his fourth world cup, a tournament which he has excelled at in the past. The Germans are certainly still hoping that he will perform, although it seems a major gamble not taking Mario Gomez, who has been consistent since the last world cup. The other striker taken is 21 year-old Kevin Volland, who has one cap. This means that the attack will struggle as it is likely that Germany will either have to choose an inexperienced or veteran striker, and this is a worry.
Coach: Paulo Bento
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
World Cup Appearances: 5 (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Third Place (1966)
Qualified: 2nd Group F, went on to defeat Sweden in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Cristiano Ronaldo (8)
The Portuguese were unable to recover from a bad run of form in which they lost 1-0 to Russia and drew 1-1 and 3-3 with Northern Ireland and Israel respectively. These results ultimately consigned them to second place and a play-off against Sweden, which they won 4-2 on aggregate thanks to 4 goals from Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese have some very strong players in their starting XI, with Real Madrid star Ronaldo the stand-out. Ronaldo has been in incredible form, winning the Ballon d’Or in 2013, and recently won the Champions League with the Spanish giants. Helder Postiga was very effective in the first round of qualifying, scoring six goals, while players like Nani and Silvestre Varela combine effectively with Ronaldo on the wings. Pepe and Bruno Alves will form an effective partnership in the centre of defence, and they have strong fullbacks in Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira. Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho control the centre of midfield.
While Portugal have some very strong players, Ronaldo contributes a majority of the goals, scoring all of Portugal’s goals in the play-off against Sweden, including a hat-trick in Solna. Ronaldo is crucial to Portugal’s success at the tournament, although while he is very experienced at the world cup (he has played 11 matches) he has not been the most prolific, only netting twice. This dependence on Ronaldo is very risky as apart from him Postiga is the only main option. This is a worry because Postiga has not had much world cup experience despite being named in the squad for the 2006 edition.
Coach: James Kwesi Appiah
Captain: Asamoah Gyan
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2006, 2010)
Best Result: Quarter-finals (2010)
Qualified: 1st Group D, went on to defeat Egypt in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Asamoah Gyan (6)
Ghana faced a struggle in the second round of qualifying against Zambia, although a 2-1 home win was enough to see them through to the play-offs. They were drawn against Egypt, and a 6-1 first-leg victory all but sealed qualification. In 2010 Ghana lost on penalties to Uruguay in the quarter-finals after Asamoah Gyan missed a 120th minute penalty.
Ghana’s midfield is extremely strong, from Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Emmanuel Badu in the centre to Kevin-Prince Boateng, Andre Ayew, Christian Atsu and Kwadwo Asamoah setting up the forwards. Captain Gyan starred at the last tournament, and Majeed Waris and Jordan Ayew will provide great support. In players like Muntari, Asamoah, Badu, Andre Ayew and Gyan, Ghana have very experienced internationals who are still close to their prime. This is great for the experience of the squad.
The Ghanaian defence is not incredibly strong, with no players from big clubs as there are in midfield. This could be a worry when coming up against some of the best players in the world, and could leave Ghana vulnerable in a tough group. The goalkeeping situation is far from ideal, with the only European-based keeper, Adam Kwarasey, plying his wares at Stromgodset in the weak Norwegian league. Richard Kingson’s absence from the squad leaves a huge gulf of experience in the position, and the three selected goalkeepers only have 45 caps between them.
Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann
Captain: Clint Dempsey
World Cup Appearances: 9 (1930, 1934, 1950, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Semi-finals (1930)
Qualified: 1st in CONCACAF qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Clint Dempsey (8)
Under the guidance of former German coach Jurgen Klinsmann the USA qualified easily in first place, sealing qualification with two games to spare. Their spot was sealed against Mexico, with goals to Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan enough for a 2-0 win.
In Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey the US have two very strong midfielders who are internationally experienced and have played against the world’s best. Goalkeeper Tim Howard is one of the best in the world, playing in the Premier League and he is vastly experienced at this level, having been capped 99 times for his country. The midfield is strong, with Dempsey, Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya all very strong players. Young players like John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green have bright futures ahead.
The non-selection of Donovan, the star of the last world cup, takes away a lot of experience from the attack and the squad in general. A lot of players are now moving away from the European leagues and going to the weaker MLS, such as Bradley (Roma to Toronto) and Dempsey (Spurs to Seattle). This is not a good thing for the US, as their best players are not getting constant experience against the world’s best. The players who seem to be playing in Europe are the players who are the least experienced at this level, and some have not picked up much game time.
This is arguably the strongest group in the tournament, and an upset could easily occur, although Germany and Portugal are definitely favourites to progress. The most likely team to knock them off would be the USA, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if either them or Ghana claimed second place.
1. Germany, 2. Portugal, 3. USA, 4. Ghana
Next: I preview the final group, Group H, where two sides who haven’t played on this stage since 2002 go head-to-head.