It really doesn’t get much better than this. That might sound cliché, but the results of the final Group D matches on Wednesday have made for two extremely interesting matches in the Round of 16. As expected, Germany beat Ghana 1-0 to clinch first place in the group and set up a match against England in the second round. But Australia’s 2-1 win over Serbia meant Ghana also advances and will face the United States in the second round.
Well, well, well. It’s the clash of the titans on one side of the bracket, and a chance for revenge on the other. England v. Germany is one of the great international rivalries in the history of the game, with the Three Lions beating Die Mannschaft for the 1966 title, and the Germans winning just about every other match since then. There have been penalty shootouts, more penalty shootouts, a German victory in the final match at old Wembley, and an English blowout on German soil in which Emile Heskey actually scored a real, live goal — and David Beckham was still unknown in America. Add to all that the war-torn history between the two nations, and it’s always a fascinating event.
And then there’s USA-Ghana, a much less historic matchup, but one that has plenty of history all the same. Four years ago, Ghana defeated the US 2-1 in the final group-stage match of that Cup thanks to a questionable penalty decision against American defender Oguchi Onyewu. But while the Americans will have revenge as motivation, the Black Stars will most likely have an entire continent rooting them on. Barring a miracle, Ghana will be the only African nation in the knockout phase, which will probably mean most Africans will adopt them as their second team. The teams look evenly matched, but the Yanks will fancy themselves underdogs with a hostile crowd rooting against them. Playing home matches in CONCACAF qualifying is basically no different, with the Latin American teams routinely packing out stadiums all across the States. Playing the villain should suit the US team well.
But as this was supposed to be a Group D wrap-up, lets get to it. Germany advances with six points, while Ghana advances with four points and a superior goal differential to Australia. Serbia finishes last with three points, which came against Germany of all teams.
Germany outlook: Die Mannschaft are among the masters of the world game. In 17 appearances at the World Cup, the Germans have failed to advance out of the first round exactly once — and that came in 1938, when the event was a straight-up single-elimination tournament. (Plus, Germany was flying the Nazi flag at the time, so we'll go ahead and throw that out.) In those 17 appearances, Germany has won three titles and finished as runner-up four more times. A World Cup final without Germany is almost like an gubernatorial campaign in Alabama without xenophobia. Hint: It doesn’t happen often.
Their performance in Group D hinted at that pedigree at times, but at other times you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. But in reality, the Germans were treated harshly by the referee in the loss to Serbia. Machine-like scorer Miroslav Klose was sent off for getting two very, very soft yellow cards, and the lone Serbian goal followed soon after that. The 4-0 win over Australia was breathtaking, but the 1-0 win over Ghana was efficient yet disappointing. The true stature of this team probably lies somewhere in between those results.
Strengths: As ever, the Germans are organized, efficient, well-drilled, machine-like and fundamentally sound. Some experts like to argue that some national soccer teams tend to play according to their national character, and it’s certainly true in the case of Germany. They might not have the most flair — Mesut Özil aside — but they can grind out results like none other, and they can kill off an opponent ruthlessly when given the opportunity.
Weaknesses: Without Klose in the lineup, the German attack seemed to suffer. Lukas Podolski is another solid attacking option (if only for Germany, and not his club), but he seems to be better with Klose on the pitch. Without Klose, the Germans lack the aerial presence that gives them such an advantage over many teams. Fortunately, he’ll be back for the England game.
Chance to win tournament (scale of 10): 7. They have to be considered one of the favorites behind Argentina and Brazil, even if it’s only for their pedigree. A potential match against Argentina looms in the quarterfinals. The winner of that game could be your world champion.
Ghana outlook: I really didn’t see much of their first two matches, but what I did see didn’t impress me. The Black Stars (which, by the way, is a really cool nickname. How many teams have their own Radiohead song?) were fortunate to beat Serbia with a late penalty and needed another penalty to salvage a draw against Australia. Ghana was expected by many to advance, but now they must be relieved to have done so.
Strengths: The defense is tough to penetrate, as Germany and Serbia found out in Group D. Kevin-Prince Boateng is a dangerous striker, while captain John Mensah is strong in the midfield.
Weaknesses: Regular captain Michael Essien was injured before the Cup, meaning the Chelsea star had to stay home. Ghana’s best player, Essien combines plenty of skill with a hard edge. He out-muscled the US midfield four years ago in Germany, and his absence has been notable for the Black Stars.
Chance to win tournament (scale of 10): 3. The Black Stars will have to improve on what really was a lackluster performance in Group D to advance any further.
Australia post-mortem: After losing to Germany 4-0 on the opening match-day, it looked all over for the Socceroos. One expert placed them last in his power rankings despite losing to the same expert’s top-ranked team in their first match. That didn’t really make much sense, and neither did Australia’s poor performance against Germany. The Socceroos won’t win any flair contests, but neither are they a poor team. Several players ply their trade in England’s Premier League, with Harry Kewell most notably attaining a high level of success (albeit about a decade ago). They showed lots of heart to draw with Ghana and beat Serbia. If only the first game hadn’t been so bad, they probably would have advanced.
Best moment: Going 2-0 up on Serbia and genuinely having a shot to advance to the knockout stages. Both goals were great, but the first — a glancing header by Tim Cahill in the 69th minute — was a real stunner.
Worst moment: The entire Germany game. The defense was porous in the first half, and things went from bad to worse after Cahill’s dismissal early in the second half.
Serbia post-mortem: The Serbs were tabbed as a dark horse by many, and their early exit has to be a huge disappointment back home. They looked good in qualifying, but with what we know now, narrowly beating out France for the top spot in UEFA’s Group 7 wasn’t all that impressive. In the opener, Serbia looked content to settle for a 0-0 draw with Ghana, the team most considered the Serbs’ top competition for second place in Group D. But the Black Stars won the game with a late penalty, making Serbia’s progress an uphill battle from that point on. A win over Germany was great, but it probably wasn’t totally deserved. Finally, the Serbs were simply not good enough in the loss to Australia.
Best moment: Milan Jovanovich’s goal against Germany, which proved to be the game-winner. Serbian coach Radomir Antic hailed the win as a “victory for our people.”
Worst moment: Giving up the late penalty and goal to Ghana. It didn’t turn out to be the difference-maker, but things could have been so much different with a draw in the opener.