By Greg Lalas, SI.com
Ghana's most accomplished player, Chelsea superstar Michael Essien will mis the tournament with a knee injury.
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Over the next four months, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Ghana.
If games are won and lost in the midfield, it's no surprise Ghana has been winning more often than not. However, Ghana's midfield has suffered a huge blow with the news that Michael Essien will be absent after failing to recover from a knee injury. Sulley Muntari and captain Stephen Appiah will need to pick up the slack.
Muntari, who plays for Inter Milan, roams the flank with a singular combination of power and grace, always scoping out attacking opportunities. And the skipper is, simply put, the most beloved man in Ghana, the spiritual heart and creative force of the Black Stars. When all three are clicking, the team has the potential to roll over anyone.
The key word there is "potential." Because even if the midfield triad can control the flow of any game, the attack has a tendency to wilt under the spotlight. The goal-scoring responsibility will fall to 26-year-old NAC Breda striker Matthew Amoah, a starter at the 2006 World Cup who was Ghana's top scorer in 2010 qualifying. If things get desperate at any point, though, coach Milovan Rajevac might opt for a young spark in the form of AC Milan phenom Dominic Adiyiah, hero of Ghana's '09 U-20 World Cup-winning team.
That U-20 team, nicknamed the Black Satellites, showcased several new talents now making their names with the senior squad. One of them is Samuel Inkoom, a kinetic, young right back who complements World Cup veterans such as John Mensah and John Pantsil (who may be ruled out by injury). The 20-year-old Inkoom, who plays for FC Basel, is consistently thrilling coaches and crowds alike with his intrepid runs down the flank and tireless energy. A bigger club will ink him very quickly if he lives up to expectations in South Africa.
What to watch for
Ghanaian soccer has made incredible advances in the last decade, including a first World Cup berth in '06, and winning the U-20 World Cup, the first major international trophy by an African nation. This side is undoubtedly better than the innocent one that fell to Brazil 3-0 in the round of 16 in Germany '06. The Essien-Muntari-Appiah partnership will produce some lovely football at times, real Jogo Bonito stuff.
But this success and the marquee names have Ghana's fans -- and many observers -- considering the side a world power, of sorts. In other words, too-high expectations could wreak havoc on the Black Stars' performance. Because the reality is, there are several weaknesses -- namely, up top and on the bench. The strike force is, sadly, not on par with the midfield, so the triad often has few options other than to play among themselves. Depth is also a concern. There are young thoroughbreds from the U-20s waiting in the wings, but they're too green for games against the likes of Germany and Serbia.
This is the biggest problem Ghana will face: the toughness of its opponents. Group D may not be the Group of Death that the Brazil-Ivory Coast-Portugal group is, but there are certainly no gimmes. This also means, of course, that despite the presence of three-time champion Germany, the group is totally up for grabs. Can Ghana play mistake-free against the calculated tactics of Germany and Serbia? Will Australia's enthusiasm and stamina throw the Ghanaians off their game? These are the questions everyone, from the coach to the fans, are asking. Was '06 a fluke? Or the start of something?
Key match in group stage
June 23 vs. Germany. Scheduling matters in group play. Meeting the toughest team in the final group match is a curse, especially in a competitive group that could still be wide open going into the last day. This game against Die Mannschaft could swing the balance of the entire group, meaning the match's winner will finish first; the loser will go home.
Celebrity scouting report: Joshua Clottey*
I think if Ghana can play their best, they can surprise Germany like they surprised Czech Republic in 2006. The coach has made a big name for himself -- he qualified Ghana for the World Cup for a second time. This time, they qualified first, faster than any African team has ever qualified. ... To have players who are playing in England and other European leagues is a help. It's good that we play the African Cup of Nations. It's a very, very hard tournament. Our younger players are getting more experience, so when it comes to the World Cup, they'll be more fantastic. ... The only weakness on our team is our strikers. We have a big problem scoring. The other African teams know how to score. ... In the end, it's not about the players, it's about the teamwork. I believe they can go further this time because it's in Africa. South Africa and Ghana are not that far apart, and it's going to benefit us because the fans are going to go along. I feel like we'll get more support, far more than the first time.
*The welterweight boxer is from Accra, Ghana. Clottey takes on Manny Pacquiao for the WBO welterweight title on March 13 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. As told to Bryan Armen Graham.