World Cup Preview – The rest of Group D

Group D certainly is a tough group to call. Germany and Ghana are both missing arguably their best players from the heart of midfield. Meanwhile the other two teams, Serbia and Australia are really starting to push forward as solid international sides. This could go either way.

AUSTRALIA

It has taken several years, but Australia have finally gained the respect of the elite nations  The turning point was on a cold wintry night at Upton Park in February 2003, where Australia dismantled a full strength England side. It made the global press sit up and take notice.

That game also marked the international debut of Wayne Rooney and also Sven Goran Eriksson’s worst night in charge of England, where he lived up to his tinkering nature and gave 22 players caps (including Francis Jeffers)

It was last time out in Germany 2006, where they made a big impact under super coach Guus Hiddink. Placed in a group with the footballing behemoth, Brazil, they came out runners up. The match with Croatia is often remembered for refereeing mistakes rather than the convincing show they put on. They were cruelly eliminated in the first knock-out stage by the champions elect, Italy, after Fabio Grosso dove in the last minute for a penalty, which Francesco Totti duly converted. Within that tournament, Australia felt the highs and lows of World Cup football. This tournament, Australia hope to erase the memories of that World Cup exit, and certainly hope progression is on the cards.

STRENGTHS

Several players ply their trade at some top European clubs, most notably Tim Cahill at Everton and Mark Bresciano at Palermo. Australia didn’t lose during their qualifying campaign (which saw them play in the Asian Confederation, as this gave them a better chance of qualifying, rather than playing off against an South American team) although the sides on show here will be a much tougher challenge. Their goalkeeper, Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer has become more consistent in both the league and European competition (and in my opinion is one of the best keepers of the Premier League) and has excelled under the tutelage of Roy Hodgson.

The Australian midfield looks like the best part of the side, assuming Pim Verbeek plays the 4-2-3-1 formation he used in qualifying. Both Vince Grella and Brett Emerton (Blackburn) have improved with age and will provide a tough obstacle to overcome. Jason Culina, who plays at Gold Coast, should also help this experienced side keep the ball in midfield.

WEAKNESSES

The Australians don’t have a quality front line. Often whoever is left up top is isolated. I expect Josh Kennedy to lead the line and the majority of you may be asking who he is. Kennedy is a journeyman of mediocre European teams, most notably Wolfsburg, Nurnberg and Karlsruhe. Finding Europe a tough nut to crack, he know plays for Nagoya Grampus (the side managed by Arsene Wenger before Arsenal). I don’t seem him scoring many goals, so Tim Cahill will be key to them progressing.

Question marks also surround the form and fitness of Harry Kewell who hasn’t been on the radar since 2005. Verbeek only picked 3 strikers, this risk may prove costly.

Australia's answer to Rocky Balboa

KEY PLAYER – Tim Cahill

Time and time again, Tim Cahill pops up with important headers for club and country. He’s certainly one of Everton’s best players, and ultimately Moyes’s best buy as manager. His leap is superb for his size, and Australia could be very dangerous from set-pieces. However, the Serbians and Germans both have strong centre-backs which should be told to keep Cahill out of the game. He is that dangerous at times.

MANAGER – Pim Verbeek

A veteran manager, who will make his 3rd successive appearance at the World Cup, having assisted Guus Hiddink in 2002 and Dick Advocaat in 2006. Unlike Hiddink, he opts for cautious attacking play which could be a good strategy. An unbeaten qualifying campaign proves he’s got national support as well.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 125/1

PREDICTION – If Australia adopt the team spirit they had in 2006, they’ll make it out of the group. I don’t see it happening this time.

SERBIA

Serbia undoubtedly have the most talented side they’ve ever had. In 2006, they entered the tournament with a sensational defensive record in qualifying (one goal conceded in ten games) but the experience is largely remembered for them buckling in that tournament’s ‘Group of Death’, including a 6-0 defeat to Argentina. In South Africa, the squad is largely unchanged but importantly, the majority of that side has gained experience at top European sides.

STRENGTHS

This side is littered with high-calibre players and the right balance between strength and speed. Nemanja Vidic has excelled at Manchester United since 2006 and is often considered one of the best no-nonsense centre backs in Europe. Branislav Ivanovic has become a regular at Chelsea, and was undoubtedly the best right-back in the league.

Champions League winner, Dejan Stankovic is the captain of this side and also their playmaker, creating great moves from the centre. Milos Krasic (who has an eerie similarity to Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2) has burst onto the scene at CSKA Moscow and provided a superb performance against Manchester United earlier this season. He can be a real handful on the wing and expect him to show his flair in South Africa.

Up front is Birmingham’s new signing, Nikola Zigic. Think Peter Crouch, but taller and twice as potent.

WEAKNESSES

It doesn’t really matter the amount of talent at your disposal if the man between the sticks isn’t up to the job. Vladimir Stojkovic was loaned out to Wigan this season and made 4 appearances. A goalkeeper with a lack of matches doesn’t bode well for them. Serbia have also been very dodgy in preparation for the tournament, losing t0 outsider New Zealand and drawing against Poland.

KEY PLAYER – Dejan Stankovic

The Serbia captain will hope to be the gel in this youthful side. He is renowned for accurate passing and starting moves in the attack. He can also deftly place from long range as this goal proves. His opportunities have been limited this season as Wesley Sneijder’s form was superb, but there’s no doubt ‘Deki’ is the instigator in Serbia’s strong and flowing play

That goal. The preceding pitch invasion haunts me

MANAGER – Raddy Antic

Fondly remembered for sending Manchester City down in 1983 with a late goal. It also sent David Pleat galloping on the Maine Road pitch in his beige suit, a sight etched into the memories of fans for many years to come. A sight I don’t want to relive. Antic’s policy of involving younger players could prove astute especially against older teams. He’s got the balance spot on.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 66/1

PREDICTION – The potential is there. The pressure is mounting. Should make it out of the groups at least.

GHANA

The Ghanaians will have been rocked by Michael Essien’s withdrawal from the side, after a massive injury lay-off this season. It will be interesting to see how they cope, and also if any younger players, especially in defence, manage to make some headway on the biggest stage.

STRENGTHS

Despite missing Essien, the midfield is still full of good players. Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari will be given the role of creator and he will hope to provide the drive forward. Captain Stephen Appiah will hope to avoid constant fitness criticism and deputise where Essien played. He is clearly talented, a former Juventus player after all but he’ll need to rekindle that form.

Kevin Prince Boateng has already made a impact at the World Cup even before it started, after his rash tackle on Germany captain Michael Ballack. A decent season at Pompey might see him make his debut at the tournament.

WEAKNESSES

The strong defence of the African Cup of Nations, which was held together brilliantly by 20 year old Sammy Inkoom, looked terrible against tougher opposition. They lost  a recent friendly to Holland 4-1. Hardly an indication of how things will play out, but its clear that their defence might well struggle to hold teams with great strikers.

Also, Wigan keeper Richard Kingson has never impressed me at his spell at the Latics. And he will be first choice. I expect Ghana to get hammered once in the group stage, most probably by Serbia.

The frontman is profilic for Ghana

KEY PLAYER – Asamoah Gyan

A perfect lone striker that bagged several goals at the African Cup on Nations. It remains to be seen in the supporting cast can help Gyan hit the net here.

MANAGER – Milovan Rajevac

Unknown Serbian that took over 2008, but has turned this side into a very tactically aware unit. Can also be complemented for giving all 23 members of the squad time to prove their worth.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP –  100/1

PREDICTION – No Essien = No progression

Join my next time where I preview the Dutch, a team often backed to end their trophy draught. Are they realistic favourites after a superb qualifying campaign?

I leave you with my favourite World Cup song this year. Simple but effective is always the best way I’m told.

And also the  funniest moment in World Cup History

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