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Soccer Thu Jun 10 2010

World Cup 2010 Preview: Group D

Group D -- another group, another unpredictable tangle of critical injuries and upstart replacements, traditional systems and bold new approaches, and on and on.

Despite the tumult of a major injury and some sociological distractions, smart money has Germany going through. They have pedigree, that's for sure. Coach Joachim Low has continued Jurgen Klinsmann's system of playing an odd brand of German fußball that doesn't consist entirely of booting the ball as far as possible, prioritizing organized defense, banging bodies, and restricting offense mostly to free kicks. It flourished at Euro 2008 (where they lost the final to Spain) and in qualifying, where Germany never lost and beat Russia twice.

With that whole, you know, passing thing in mind, captain Michael Ballack's injury (see above) might be the biggest Ewing Theory contender of the Cup. Yes he's a critical player, but without him gooning around picking up stupid yellow cards, Germany may find they move into attack quicker. The playmaking responsibilities will have to be spread more evenly among Bastian Schweinsteiger (playing more central than he does at Bayern Munich), Lukas Podolski, Philip Lahm (coming from right-back), and a whole cast of young upstarts including Sami Khedira, Cacau, Marko Marin, and Mesut Ozil.

If some of those names sound a little un-German, get used to it. One of the most interesting cultural subplots this summer is the diversification of the German side, finally reflecting the country's sizable Muslim (mostly Turkish) contingent. Along with Polish players -- like Podolski and Miroslav Klose -- 11 of the 23 German players are either foreign born or of foreign descent. A national anthem controversy has already surfaced.

Speaking of sociological issues in soccer, dig this. Germany's Ballack was injured by a tackle by Kevin-Prince Boateng (see video above). Boateng is a German-born Ghanaian. His brother, Jerome Boateng, is also an accomplished player and decided to play for the German national team. Kevin-Prince, though, decided to play for Ghana. On June 23 the brothers will go against each other, each representing a different approach to immigration, nationalism and identity. (Suck on that, assimilation.)

The other major connection between Ghana and Germany is the injury to their captain, Michael Essien. The problem for Ghana is that they don't have the kind of depth in their squad that Germany has -- replacing Essien might just be too tall a task for Stephen Appiah and others.

If they are to get through, they'll need what was the youngest team in 2006 to prove they've matured. Inter Milan gadfly Sulley Muntari has all the talent in the world but the discipline of a delinquent and some bad thighs. Assuming he's fit, can (Serbian) coach Milovan Rajevac get the most from him and the rest of the team in his preferred defensive lineup? Despite creative players like Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah, and Dominic Adiyiah, Rajevac wants to stick with a 4-5-1. The Black Stars have experienced defenders in John Mensah and John Paintsil, and without Essien patrolling the midfield it'll be down to them to ensure Ghana gets out of this tricky group.

(formerly Serbia and Montengro, Yugoslavia)
Interestingly enough, despite two Serbian coaches in group D, only one is playing the traditional, defensive Serbian soccer. Radomir Antic led the White Eagles to first place in qualifying by staying safe in the back without being afraid to let Milos Krasic, Milan Jovanovic, and Marko Pantellic go forward. It's a young strikeforce, but don't let their age or their relative obscurity fool you. Krasic is a significant reason for CSKA Moscow's recent dominance, Jovanovic is moving from Standard Liege to Liverpool, and Pantellic had 16 goals in 25 games for Ajax.

Defense should still be Serbia's strongpoint. Despite a virus (or was it a rash?) that kept him out of the tune-up friendlies, Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic expects to be 100% and he, along with Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, help comprise one of the Cup's best defenses. In Inter Milan's ageless Dejan Stankovic, Serbia also has established leadership.

It's not hard to see, then, why some people have Serbia pegged for a quarter- or semi-final run, but they'll have to prove they can succeed at this stage -- they arrived at World Cup 2006 with similar expectations and ended up pointless, the worst team there.

The terribly/awesomely named Socceroos will have to exceed expectations to get out of the group. Despite coasting through qualifying and some Premier League standouts in forward Tim Cahill and goalie Mark Schwarzer, the friendly against USA last week showed just how inept J-Leaguer Josh Kennedy can be, and defender Lucas Neil looked like he has lost a step since his days at Blackburn and West Ham.

Midfielders Mark Bresciano and Brett Emerton should be able to give Australia a fair amount of possession, but to be blunt, Australia simply doesn't the talent to match up with the others in this group. The obvious news that Harry Kewell is battling an injury certainly won't make coach Pim Verbeek sleep any better (though a witch doctor seems to have it under control).

If they are to win, they'll need nothing less than superhero play from Tim Cahill, who's no stranger to carrying teams on his back. Although battling to be fit, if he can reproduce some of his best performances for Everton, who knows -- Australia could just blow this whole thing up.

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