Edge-of-Your-Seat

It’s no secret, really: The magic, drama and intrigue of the FIFA World Cup is at its pinnacle during the tournament’s two-week, high-octane knockout round. Having weathered their respective groups, the remaining 16 nations go to battle in emotionally charged, single-elimination fixtures — until one (and only one) nation immortalizes itself in the pages of history. And, of course, in the hearts and minds of adoring (or bitterly resentful) fans.

When the field of 32 competing nations is drawn, lottery-style, into eight groups for the two-week group phase of the monthlong tournament, two frontrunners can usually be inferred. Certain countries have proven themselves time and time again throughout the tournament’s history to be worthy contenders in the final fortnight. Even the most soccer-apathetic of individuals are familiar with World Cup usuals Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy and France. These squads are all safe bets for deep runs into the tournament’s latter stages, and can be penned in as the winners of their respective groups before a ball is even kicked.

However, at each quadrennial competition, the lottery draw arbitrarily warps the fortunes of a few nations — randomly casting four quality teams into a group and effectively creating the World Cup equivalent of a four-way heavyweight free-for-all. As only two of these four juggernauts are allowed to advance to the legend-defining knockout rounds, the group is typically full of tense, evenly fought tussles — an emotional rollercoaster for fans of the participating teams, and a mouth-watering spectacle for neutral bystanders.

“The Group of Death,” as it is commonly called, is often so unpredictable that even the most competent football pundits hesitate to provide any firm predictions. While Group G earns the ominous distinction in this year’s tournament — featuring Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire and Portugal — Group D, which could be called the Mini Group of Death, features the venerable World Cup stalwarts Germany, a talent-packed Serbia, an exceedingly athletic Ghana (drawn into a difficult group for the second straight tournament) and a well-balanced Australia. With all four teams ranked in the world’s top 32, this group is the tournament’s most evenly balanced from top to bottom.

Germany

No. 6 Germany is the intuitive pick for the group’s winner, but its standing as favorite is tenuous. As evidenced by previous World Cup successes — and the litany of elite players now honing their trade at the European club level — Germany is a premier hotbed of footballing talent capable of producing iconic, tournament-defining players. However, German captain Michael Ballack’s devastating ankle injury — sustained while playing in the English Cup final on May 15 for London team Chelsea Football Club — has deprived the team of their talisman, and deprived the world of one of football’s most well-known and respected players.

Ballack’s injury is even more damning to a team whose chances of victory are balanced largely on the presence of strong veterans. While this year’s German selection does include a smattering of older players — defenders Philipp Lahm (age 26), Arne Freidrich (age 31) and striker Miroslav Klose (age 32) — at the core of the team are younger players with little experience playing for the German national team, much less on a stage as grand as the World Cup. Manager Joachim Low will bank on the experience of the team’s few seasoned leaders to stabilize and harness the talent of unproven youngsters like midfielder Mesut Ozil and forwards Stefan Kiessling and Thomas Muller. However, while the absence of Ballack’s leadership will hurt, Germany still has a more talented roster than any other team in the group — giving the team a good chance not just to win Group D, but perhaps the entire tournament. A deep run to the semifinals and beyond is well within question.

Serbia

While there is a substantial drop-off in quality between No. 16 Serbia’s first team and its reserve players, it still fields a starting 11 perfectly capable of beating any opposition. They proved their competence during a surprisingly easy European qualification campaign, finishing ahead of group members France and Romania and boasting top-class talent in every department.

On defense, Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic — two hard-hitting, dogged defenders who have garnered international acclaim for their exploits on English-league powerhouses Manchester United and Chelsea FC, respectively — form arguably one of the best defensive pairings in the world.

In the midfield, team captain Dejan Stankovic and Milos Krasic excel. The former, who just lifted the European Champions League Cup with club side Inter Milan on May 22, combines combative, ball-winning abilities with a wide passing range and a venomous shot from afar. Krasic, who flies under the international radar playing in the frozen tundra of Russia’s first division for CSKA Moscow, is a deadly hybrid of skill and speed.

So, with an imposing defense and dynamic midfield, the Serbs obviously have what it takes to maintain form throughout the tournament. Four years ago, however, stocked with comparable talent, the team (competing as Serbia-Montenegro) lacked organization and team chemistry, making headlines with the 6–0 annihilation it suffered at the hands of a merciless Argentina.

If the Serbians are to improve upon that performance, they must avoid injury. Unlike the Germans, — who will likely replace Ballack with little impact to their on-field ability — the Serbians don’t have the luxury of an endless roster of talent. Should they fall at all short of their potential, they will have major problems with the likes of No. 20 Australia and No. 32 Ghana — whose African support base will likely make every stadium a living hell for any Black Star opposition.

Ghana

The Black Stars of Ghana, despite an inferior pre-tournament ranking, are not to be taken lightly. Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari and Chelsea FC’s Michael Essien are two of the finest central midfielders in the world. Their lethal combination of power, skill, speed, stamina and mental fortitude is unrivaled, and both play pivotal roles on their respective club teams.

Big names aside, when the Ghanaians made their improbable march into the round of 16 from a similarly difficult group four years ago, their play was not dependant on their superstars; rather, on a physically imposing, energetic, up-tempo style of football with which opposition teams struggled to cope. Because the intensity of this already overwhelming style will be enhanced by a raucous African crowd in the stands, not only could Ghana propel into the knockout rounds, but they could very well claim top group honors.

Australia

Lastly, the Socceroos — the fans affectionate name for the team — are no slouches. The team may not boast any international superstars, but its complexion is very similar to that of the U.S.: The team features a smattering of European-based players, headlined by standout forward Tim Cahill and defender Lucas Neill.

In 2006, the Socceroos advanced past the group phase to battle eventual champion Italy in a 0-0 stalemate over 90 minutes. It stands as of one of the most controversial moments of the last World Cup: A questionable call inside the penalty area with mere seconds left doomed the Aussies to a heartbreaking extra-time loss. With many players from that team returning this year, the Socceroos will have retribution on their mind entering group play. However, given the equally powerful motivations and superior ability of their group opponents, the Aussies will most likely impact the group as a spoiler rather than a group leader.

The Verdict

Ultimately, the Germans have too much World Cup pedigree and raw talent not to advance out of the group. Maybe. However, the team that joins them in the knockout rounds will be determined by the winner of Serbia vs. Ghana on June 13 — a matchup that promises to be one of the best of the group phase. Maybe.

The only thing I can really predict with any great is that there’s only way to make watching Group D any better than it already promises to be: Watch it with a beer in hand.

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