Thursday, May 22, 2014

World Cup Preview, Groups G and H

By Kevin Beane

Wrapping up our four-part series, here's a look at Group G and Group H in this summer's World Cup.

Group G

USA — First and foremost for the United States, this group is a real bummer. With the weakness of Groups C, E, F, and H, the U.S. gets the group of death (a lot of pundits said the U.S. was giving themselves too much credit for calling this the group of death, but if you average everyone's FIFA rankings at the time of the draw, it really is the group of death).

Not only does the group contain the powers of Germany and Portugal (and contains no teams that the US has not already played in the last three World Cups,) but the U.S.'s own personal bugaboo, Ghana, who have knocked the U.S. out of the last two World Cups.

I'll be curious to see what Jurgen Klinsmann can do in his first World Cup for the Americans, and I have a lot of faith in him. They've passed Mexico for CONCACAF supremacy. But recent form has been lacking (with a win over South Korea more than offset by draws to Mexico and Scotland and losses against Ukraine and Austria), and their pre-WC fixtures are against Nigeria (okay), Turkey (okay), and Azerbaijan (what?). In this group, I don't see a way through for this team.

GERMANY — Well, let's see. They are ranked No. 2 in the world. They're undefeated in their last 9 games. They have 13 players from last year's UEFA Champions League final. There's just not a lot of nuance here or dissections to do. This team is going very far.

PORTUGAL — You've heard this before: Portugal will go as far as Cristiano Ronaldo will take them. And based on the latest evidence, that could be far. He's scored 6 of the country's 9 goals, and those were all impressive wins — a thrashing of World Cup participants Cameroon, and a win/win in a 2-legged WC playoff over Sweden.

The remainder of their World Cup tuneups are strong: Greece, Mexico, and Ireland. You have to like where they have been and where they are going.

GHANA — Ghana, perhaps, is even more snakebitten than the US for being in this group. Lots of guys return from the Americans' nightmares, like Asamoah Gyan and Kevin-Prince Boateng. They also boast the formidable midfield tandem of Michael Essien, Kwadwo Asamoah, and Sulley Muntari.

They are fresh off a Finals appearance in the African Nations Championship, although that was followed by a letdown against Montenegro. They are challenging themselves in the run-up to the World Cup, playing the Netherlands and South Korea. This team would have made it out of most groups.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Germany
2. Portugal
3. Ghana
4. USA

Group H

BELGIUM — Going back to the NFL parallels of early in the series, Belgium is the Seattle Seahawks of FIFA.

Stay with me here. Seattle has won a Super Bowl. Will Belgium win the World Cup? Probably not. But like the Seahawks, they toiled under years of mediocrity and suddenly found themselves very strong, seemingly out of nowhere. You've probably heard of Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany already, but their roster is chock-full of European stars beyond those two, and contain not a single player older than 29.

They were undefeated in World Cup qualifying, but recent form has been a concern (winless in their last four). Still, this is a weak group with no one standing in their way.

RUSSIA — It's impressive that the Russians won their World Cup qualifying group, which included Portugal. They did it by doing a slightly better job against the lesser lights of their group than the Portuguese did and pipping them by a point after trading 1-0 results with them.

Beyond that, this team is slightly enigmatic. Their five World Cup warmups include only one other group qualifier, South Korea, whom they beat. They have games coming up against ho-hum Norway and Morocco coming up. Their entire squad save one plays in the so-so Russian Premier League. Their ranked 18th in the world, which seems a bit high to me. I'm giving them an incomplete.

ALGERIA — While I make this post fairly U.S.-centric, I'll note that the victims of perhaps the most famous, or at least thrilling, U.S. World Cup victory is back for more after 2010, where besides taking the Americans to the wire, they also impressively drew with England.

They are 7-1-1 in their last 9 games, and while most of that is against African squads that never qualify for the World Cup, their most recent win was an avenging of their loss to Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup. There is plenty of European-league talent in this group, notably midfielders Saphir Taider and Hassan Yebda. In a group this weak, I do like their chances of advancing.

SOUTH KOREA — In what is turning out to be a very weak Asian Football Confederation, South Korea stands out as the best of a bad lot. Nine players on their World Cup roster play in Europe, and they've a great World Cup warmup schedule. Their last six friendlies were all against World Cup teams, and they've done alright, beating Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Greece, while losing to the U.S., Mexico, and their group mates Russia.

It's going to be very, very close between Algeria and South Korea to see who finishes second to Belgium in the group. I think Algeria has a bit more to prove, and they are ranked 30 spots higher than Korea in the FIFA rankings. I'm going with the North Africans.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Belgium
2. Algeria
3. South Korea
4. Russia

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