Friday December 6th, 2013

The U.S. men's national team endured a staggering afternoon in Brazil, getting paired with nemesis Ghana and European powers Germany and Portugal for next summer's World Cup. There is no doubting the quality and strength of the Americans' opposition, but they are not without flaws.

Here is a closer, in depth look at the USA's World Cup opponents:


By some measures, Ghana is the most consistent African side over the past four years. It reached the final of the Cup of Nations in 2010, was a Luis Suarez handball away from the semifinal of the World Cup in South Africa, and got to the semifinal of the Cup of Nations in both 2012 and 2013. The other way of look at it is that it was eliminated from the last two Cups of Nations by Zambia and Burkina Faso. Complacency seems to be a major problem with the squad, and while that surely won't be an issue at the World Cup, it does highlight the fact that this is a squad that isn't always fully focused.

It's also a squad that players seem to drift into and out of competitions as they choose. Schalke 04 midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng came out of international retirement just in time to be available for the playoffs, although he turned out to be injured, while Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien and Dede Ayew have all had time away from the national team for injuries and/or discipline.

That suggests booth the potential for disharmony within the squad and the lack of authority of the coach, James Kwesi Appiah, something that wasn't helped after the Cup of Nations when the Ghanaian FA made a public show of not sacking Appiah but sending him on a training course. It would be no surprise if he were replaced by a European coach or had a European assistant imposed upon him before the tournament.

The probable tactical shape is a 4-3-3, with Essien sitting deep in midfield flanked by Muntari and Kwadwoh Asamoah. Asamoah Gyan, so often the scourge of the USA in the past, leads the line, with Ayew on one flank and probably Christian Atsu on the other. There is the possibility, though, of bringing in Emmanuel Agyamang-Badu to play in a holding role alongside Essien and pushing Asamoah forwards in a 4-2-3-1; if Boateng plays, he too would seem most naturally suited to a central creative role.

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For the third tournament in a row, Portugal needed to go through the playoffs to qualify. It can point to the fact that it exited the Euros and the last World Cup after pushing Spain to the brink, but those repeated wobbles in qualifying are not coincidence. There is something not quite right about Portugal, and the issue, as so often, revolves around Cristiano Ronaldo.

His performance in the second leg of the playoff against Sweden was jaw-dropping as he scored a brilliant hat trick, but Portugal does tend to wait for him to transform games. Given the other players in its squad, it really shouldn't be an issue of Ronaldo plus 10, but that's how it can often feel, and that makes the side predictable: Russia, notably, shut Portugal down in qualifying, while it took more Ronaldo heroics to salvage a 3-3 draw in Israel.

Bruno Aves and Pepe are a fine defensive pairing, Fabio Coentrao an explosive left back and Joao Moutinho a neat passer of a ball, while Nani, inconsistent as he is, should be able to offer an alternative to Ronaldo on the right in Paulo bento's 4-2-3-1. Portugal still suffers from the lack of a top-class center forward -- a persistent problem almost since Eusebio retired -- but still, the basis should be there for a decent team.

As it is, this Portugal is rather less than the sum of its parts, far too reliant on Ronaldo. If it is to prosper, either other players are going to have to take more responsibility -- although the possibility is that Ronaldo demands that -- or Ronaldo will have to have an exceptional tournament.

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The quality of Germany's midfield is not in question, and in terms of setting the side up, its coach Jogi Low has the huge advantage that the bulk of his squad is drawn from two clubs, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which means the mutual understanding that creates the coalitions that increase the pace of an attack and the solidity of the defense is to an extent already there.

But there is a doubt. Germany was widely praised for its performances at the last World Cup, when it was beaten in the semifinal by Spain and, to an extent, understandably so: much of its counter-attacking was superbly incisive. But it was counter-attacking; Germany at the last World Cup was essentially a reactive team. Leaving aside the third-place playoff, which is of questionable competitiveness, Germany played six games in South Africa.

In three of them, against Australia, England and Argentina, it took the lead in the opening 10 minutes and, sitting back and playing on the break, ended up with four goals in each. In the other three games, against Serbia, Ghana and Spain, it didn't score early and was unable ever really to impose itself, losing two games 1-0 and beating Ghana by a single goal.

Since then, Low has reacted to the influx of creative talent by trying to make his side more proactive, while retaining his 4-2-3-1. He has succeeded, but it has come at the cost of defensive efficiency. Even at the Euros, Germany let in two soft goals against Greece in the quarterfinal before being savaged by Italy's Mario Balotelli in the semifinal.

In qualifying it let in 10 goals -- more than any other European side that topped its qualifying group. This is a formidable side, but it is not invincible and it may be even more vulnerable if, as seems likely, Sami Khedira does not recover in time form his knee injury.

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