by Neil Morris
Group B: Algeria v. Slovenia, 7:30 a.m. ESPN
The contrasting styles of these surprise qualifiers will be on display at Peter Mokaba Stadium, which features a new pitch containing millions of synthetic grass fiber threads woven in between and beneath the natural grass surface. Slovenia is a stout, defense-oriented squad that looks for counterattacking opportunities. Algeria, on the other hand, loves to play in high gear and get the ball up front. The Desert Foxes, one of the youngest teams in the Cup, scored only four goals in six games at the 2010 African Cup of Nations, including a goals/shots conversion rate of only 7.6 percent. They suffered heavy friendly losses to Serbia and Ireland in the run-up to the Cup, while Slovenia easily handed Qatar and New Zealand.
Players to watch:
Madjid Bougherra, Algeria: The team’s best defender will be counted on to neutralize Slovenian strikers Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatko Dedic, especially after coach Rabah Saadane declared captain Yazid Mansouri not fit enough to start. However, the Rangers’ standout is nursing his own calf injury that caused him to miss the end of the SPL season.
Boštjan Cesar, Slovenia: The 6-foot-3 center back, who just signed with Chievo of Serie A, will be counted on to bolster Slovenia’s defensive line, especially with stymieing Algeria’s set pieces and crosses.
Prediction: 1-0 Slovenia victory
Group D: Serbia v. Ghana, 10:00 a.m. ESPN
With Germany the prospective pace-setter coming out of Group D, this is a pivotal clash between two clubs hoping to snag the group’s runner-up spot in the second round. Four years ago, Ghana became one of the very few teams to lose their opening World Cup match and still go on to advance beyond the group stage. This year, however, the Black Stars are without captain Michael Essien, the talented Chelsea defensive midfielder, due to a knee injury. But, check out this statistic: Ghana’s record with Essien during World Cup qualifying and the 2010 African Nations Cup is 7 wins, 1 draw, 4 losses; without Essien, they have 4 wins, 0 draw, and 1 defeat. Serbia, making their first Cup appearance as an independent nation, is big and tough, and they look to impose their will on defense while snagging goals off set pieces: they scored seven times off corners during qualifying, two more than any other team in the UEFA. Ghana hopes to combat the opposition with the help of Milovan Rajevac, their outspoken, Serbian-born manager.
Players to watch:
Asamoah Gyan, Ghana: The mercurial Gyan was Ghana’s hero at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and since 2003 he has 20 goals in 32 caps. He will need to have a big day to pierce Serbia’s defense, just as he did four years ago against the Czech Republic.
Nemanja Vidic, Serbia: The Manchester United center back will be the anchor against expected Ghanaian attacks, as long as he can keep his head and avoid his penchant for bookings.
Prediction: 2-1 Serbia wins
Group D: Germany v. Australia, 2:30 p.m. ABC
Germany’s attacking style clashes with Australia’s staunch defense, but the biggest contrast may be at goalkeeper. Aussie Mark Schwarzer has played nearly 700 professional games and 75 international caps, and holds the English Premier League record for most appearances by a foreign player. On the opposite end of the pitch, 24-year-old Manuel Neuer is making his Cup debut, elevated to the starting spot in place of an injured Rene Adler. Each will be called upon to beat back a bevy of talented scorers: Tim Cahill and Josh Kennedy for the Socceroos, and Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, and the newly naturalized Cacau for Die Nationalelf. However, Germany is without former captain Michael Ballack, who suffered an ankle injury in the FA Cup Final. With an average age of less than 26, this is the youngest German World Cup squad in 76 years. However, the U.S.A. easily handling Australia during last week’s friendly is an ominous sign.
Players to watch:
Bastian Schwiensteiger, Germany: This 25-year-old, already into an eight-year stint with Bayern Munich, can play midfield and left or right winger. As Ballack’s replacement, observers are waiting for him to begin establishing his own legacy.
Tim Cahill, Australia: The Socceroos talented talisman and Everton standout is a crafty scoring machine. His goal in the U.S. friendly last week was his 20th in 40 appearances for Australia since 2004.
Prediction: Germany always wins, 3-1
Attorney, movie critic, and once an American big-three-sports-only fan, Neil Morris now uses terms like "pitch" to mean a field instead of a throw. He covers the Carolina RailHawks and the North American Soccer League for the Independent.