THE WORLD CUP STARTS THIS WEEK!!!!!
Captain: D Philipp Lahm. Filling in for the injured Michael Ballack, Lahm, 26, will be the youngest captain Germany has ever taken to a World Cup. Despite his relative youth, Lahm has been a German and Bayern Munich fixture since 2006. The 5-foot-7 pacy back can play on either the left or the right and is counted on to supply quality service with devastating crosses. Chances are if Germany is playing a game that matters, Lahm is in the starting lineup, and he’s finishing the game. He was the only German player to play in all 690 minutes of their 2006 World Cup run to the final. At Euro 2008, Lahm started and finished all of Germany’s matches except for the final, where he was forced to be substituted after receiving a cut to his foot that required stitches. And naturally Lahm was the only player to play every single minute for Germany in their qualification for this year’s World Cup. He had a fantastic World Cup last time around, including getting things started with aplomb six minutes into the opener versus Costa Rica. If he gives them anything close to that effort this time around, the Germans will be more than happy with their new captain.
Where The Goals Will Come From: MF Bastian Scwheinsteiger. I know Miroslav Klose scores at World Cups. He bagged five goals in the 2002 World Cup (though three came against lowly Saudi Arabia) and scored another five in the 2006 World Cup, becoming the only player in history to score five goals in successive World Cups. But Klose made only 11 league starts for Bayern Munich this year, losing minutes to the likes of 20-year old Thomas Muller, who we’ll get to later. Don’t expect another five from Klose this year. But his Bayern Munich teammate, Schweinsteiger certainly is a candidate to knock a few home. Just 25-years old, Schweinsteiger has already made 75 senior national team appearances, and has shown a propensity to find the back of the net. Many will remember Schweinsteiger’s long range assault he launched on Portugal in the 2006 third place match and then the goals he netted in the Euro 2008 quarterfinal and semifinal wins. He’s a live-wire in midfield and isn’t afraid to be combative, which has at times gotten him into trouble. But he’s 100 miles per hour all the time and makes crucial late runs into the box from midfield. With Ballack out, Schweinsteiger will assume more responsibility, so he’ll need to be on his best behavior.
X-Factor: F Lukas Podolski. Strikers are judged by goals – fairly or unfairly. Jozy Altidore scored just one league goal for Hull City this year, so much of England considers him a bust. Podolski, the man who was voted the 2006 World Cup’s Best Young Player ahead of future megastars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, is coming off a puzzling barren season with Cologne, in which he netted just two Bundelisga goals. However, in five matches for Germany, the 25-year old Podolski scored five times. And that’s kind of been the story of Podolski’s career. Struggle domestically, but thrive internationally. He scored three times in the ’06 World Cup and scored six times in qualification for this year’s tournament. If Podolski can continue his purple patch for country, than Germany should have enough firepower to contend for the trophy, even without Ballack.
Young Stud: MF Mesut Ozil. Germany has a lot of young talent to get excited about. There’s 20-year old striker Thomas Muller, who bagged 19 goals for Bayern Munich this season, 23-year old Stuttgart holding midfielder Sami Khedira, who will assume Ballack’s central roles, and 20-year old attacking midfielder Toni Kroos, who score nine Bundesliga goals for Bayer Leverkusen this term. But Ozil is perhaps the most polished and ready to shine. The left-footed midfielder can strike from distance, dribble past you or provide a slicing pass that leaves you shaking your head. In the 2007 U-21 European Championships, Ozil, whose parents are Turkish, stood out for the victorious Germans, including a brilliant display in the 4-0 final triumph over England. He turned that performance into a lucrative deal with Werder Bremen and has made 71 appearances for the Bundelsiga side, scoring 13 times. He’s tricky and a handful, and has been getting plenty of run with the Starting XI in Germany’s World Cup run-up.
Captain: D Lucas Neill. A steady, veteran defender, Neill has been something of a hired gun since leaving Blackburn, playing for three teams in the last three years (West Ham, Everton, Galatasaray). He plays right back for club, but for country is deployed in the center of defense. He didn’t look particularly strong in Australia’s warm-up loss to the U.S., with run-of-the-mill strikers Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley giving him problems. Neill started all four of Australia’s games at the 2006 World Cup, but was guilty of fouling Fabio Grosso late in the Socceroos’ Round of 16 contest against Italy, which knocked out Australia 1-0. As you would expect for a guy that makes his money playing at right back, Neill has a tendency to get beat in the air, which can prove problematic for a center back.
Where The Goals Will Come From: MF Tim Cahill. How can you not like Tim Cahill? Without a doubt, Australia’s most influential player, Cahill is everything you want in a midfielder. He’s combative, fantastic in the air, and always seems to have a nose for goal. The Everton omnipresent is an absolute warrior for Australia and perhaps one of the better box-to-box midfielders in the tournament. He’s not afraid to throw his body around, and is a complete terror in the air, with brilliant jumping ability. He’ll make late runs into the box and work off of giant frontman Josh Kennedy.
X-Factor: MF Harry Kewell. If he could just stay 100 percent fit…That’s the story of Harry Kewell’s career. The Aussie winger has all the offensive tools you’d want. He’s creative and technical, but perhaps more importantly, audacious at times. Problem is, injuries have cost him the pace that made him a potential star. He’s still without a doubt Australia’s most skilled player and he’ll be vastly important to any offense the Socceroos generate. He’s been rested in some of the World Cup buildup but should be ready to go come time for the Aussie’s Group D opener versus Germany.
Young Stud: N/A. It’s hard to pick a young stud on Australia’s squad because only three players are under 25. Forward Nikita Rukavytsa is 22, but he made just two substitute appearances for Dutch champions FC Twente. Midfielder Dario Vidosic is a 23-year old Croatian-born attacker playing his trade in Germany, but hasn’t really done anything to set my heart aflutter. And then there’s Mark Milligan, who is a 24-year old utility defender, who flaked out of a French football trial and has spent the past two years playing in Japan.
Captain: MF Stephen Appiah. Always an important figure in the middle of Ghana’s midfield, Appiah will have to shoulder an even larger burden with the absence of Chelsea star Michael Essien. But Appiah has basically been a soccer vagabond since leaving Fenerbahce, failing to land deals at Tottenham and Russia’s Rubin Kazan because of injury concerns. He eventually landed with Italian side Bologna, but made just one appearance, a late season charitable cameo as a half-time substitute. Not quite the form you’re looking for in your captain.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Asamoah Gyan. With a superb strike rate of 20 goals in 32 matches for Ghana, Gyan is without a doubt the Black Stars’ most viable threat up top. A teammate of Carlos Bocanegra’s at Rennes, Gyan scored three of Ghana’s four goals at the 2010 African Cup of Nations and helped the Black Stars reach the finals despite a dearth of injuries. He has electric speed and will shot at will, sometimes to a fault.
X-Factor: MF Sulley Muntari. Can either play on the left or center of midfield, Muntari can be a powerhouse at times. He’s a tricky dribbler and has a rocket for a shot. He started 16 Serie A games for Inter Milan, making an additional 11 substitute appearaces in league play for the European champions. However, fitness might be a problem for Muntari. He aggravated a thigh strain against the Netherlands Tuesday, was rested for Saturday’s friendly against Latvia and didn’t train with the rest of the team last week. If Muntari misses out, it’s just another blow to a team that with all its players could have been a sleeper threat, but without possibly its two best players, Ghana could be doomed at South Africa.
Young Stud: MF Kevin-Prince Boateng. He came up through the German youth ranks, but couldn’t break into the senior side. So he chose to represent his parents’ homeland (his brother was good enough play for Germany). He made his Ghanaian debut in a friendly against Latvia, playing 66 minutes and impressing national team coach Milovan Rajevac. Despite Portsmouth’s relegation from the Premiership, little of the club’s demise had to do with Boateng’s displays. He was constantly active and an attacking, powerful force, scoring five times from midfield. With Muntari battling a thigh strain, Boateng is in line for major minutes and the 23-year old definitely doesn’t lack confidence.
Captain: MF Dejan Stankovic. A 31-year old veteran of 88 international caps, Stankovic is the classy midfield glue for Serbia. This year, he made 35 starts for Inter Milan (in all competitions) and plays in a more advanced role for the European champions (five goals in 2009-10) than he does with Serbia. For country, Stankovic is more of a calming, holding ball winner. But he’ll still let fly given the chance. He’s feisty and leads by example.
Where The Goals Will Come From: F Milan Jovanovic. The 29-year old attacker led Serbia with five goals in qualification and recently signed a pre-contract deal with Liverpool after a successful run in Belgium, which saw him earn Jupiler League Player of the Year honors this season. He’ll be deployed on the left side of midfield, but you’ll often see him in the box providing support for Marko Pantelic and Nikola Zigic.
X-Factor: MF Milos Krasic. Primed for a breakout tournament and a decent payday, Krasic is a creative right winger that has attracted interest from some of Europe’s top teams. The 25-year old has spent seven seasons with CSKA Moscow (33 goals), and started to draw scouts’ eyes with his performances in the UEFA Cup in 2009. With Jovanovic on the left on Krasic on the right, Serbia has two wing attackers that will keep opposing backs pinned deep.
Young Stud: D Neven Subotic. He could have been heading to South Africa for the U.S. Instead, he’s one of the hottest defensive properties in Europe and suiting up for Serbia. You can thank Thomas Rongen for that. The former US U-20 coach publicly criticized and didn’t pick Subotic for 2007 U-20 World Cup. Subotic, whose family fled the former Yugoslavia for Salt Lake City in the late 1990s, has become a star in Germany playing Borussia Dortmund and is a major threat on set pieces. The 21-year old is being tracked by the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, and with Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Vidic, provide Serbia with a strong defensive backbone.
Germany wins the group. Serbia advances in second.