While U.S. fans will find it hard to look past the biggest match in their country’s soccer history, the English have bigger fish to fry. Talent isn’t an issue, but it’s taken unflappable Italian coach Fabio Capello to turn the Three Lions into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Led by midfield dynamos Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the English can win even if they’re playing poorly, and that’s not good for the rest of this group.
The Charlie Davies saga made forward the biggest headache for the U.S. prior to the World Cup, but Oguchi Onyewu’s underwhelming return from a knee injury has turned defense into a far bigger concern. Clarence Goodson and Jay DeMerit must rise to the occasion if the Americans are going to have any success. Scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem with Edson Buddle bursting onto the scene and in-form Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey charging up the flanks.
World Cup preview
Monday » Groups A & B
Tuesday » Groups C & D
Wednesday » Groups E & F
Thursday » Groups G & H
Dark horse: Slovenia
The diminutive size of the country (pop. 2 million) should match its chances. But the Slovenians defend with heart and organization, and if it was good enough to get them into the World Cup — they overcame a playoff against mighty Russia to earn their berth — it’s a good enough strategy at the World Cup. Goalkeeper Samir Handanovic is tall and rangy while midfielder Robert Koren and forward Milivoje Novakovic are a dangerous attacking combination.
Inconsistency is a killer in the World Cup, which doesn’t bode well for the maddening Desert Foxes. In January, Algeria upset Ivory Coast, 3-2, in the African Cup of Nations quarterfinals but then got thumped by Egypt, 4-0, in the semis. Their heavily French-born roster has plenty of inexperience and will start a man down with dynamic left back Nadir Belhadj suspended for the Slovenia match because of his red card against the Egyptians.
Player to watch:
Wayne Rooney, England, forward
Coming off his best professional season ever at Manchester United, the 24-year-old sensation is in prime form despite odd bouts with groin and ankle injuries — and duly carries the weight of English hopes on his shoulders. Fortunately, he’s speedy and relentless going forward, yet also skilled enough to make something out of nothing. Paired with 6-foot-7 Peter Crouch, opposing defenses will have their hands full.
Game to watch:
U.S. vs. England, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
After six months of waiting and buildup, the best opening round match will attract more American eyes than any U.S. soccer game has before. As much as a goal-filled draw would be satisfactory for those hoping the Yanks and English advance to the knockout rounds, both teams know that a victory is the best way to get a leg up early. There’s no chance this match finishes scoreless.
Don’t be swayed by a shock pre-tournament upset by New Zealand last week. The Serbs are slight favorites in a group as up for grabs as any. It’s not just that the Germans are suffering from injuries and inexperience, it’s that the Serbs — playing for the first time as an independent nation — have talent and leadership throughout, from defender Branislav Ivanovic to devastating winger Milos Krasic and veteran midfielder Dejan Stankovic.
With the best track record among the European representatives, the Germans aren’t to be underestimated, even without injured Michael Ballack. But unless youngsters like Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil can take advantage of fortunate scheduling — facing Australia first is a gift — there are still more questions than answers, particularly at goalkeeper, where projected starter Manuel Neuer takes over with a mere five appearances to his name.
Dark horse: Ghana
A group like this one doesn’t have a dark horse, especially not the Black Stars, who are favorites to carry the continental standard after taking runner-up in the African Cup of Nations. They’ve also been preparing to be without Michael Essien (knee) since the winter, which lessens the blow to team morale. If Stephen Appiah can calm his youthful teammates’ nerves and forward Asamoah Gyan gets off to a hot start, Ghana will still make noise.
The Socceroos advanced out of a top-heavy but weak group led by Brazil four years ago, but luck isn’t on their side in South Africa. Too much hope has been pinned on the return of past-his-prime Harry Kewell and the desire of Tim Cahill to carry Australia in front of the net. The defense — picked apart by the U.S. last weekend — will get shelled in the opening match by Germany, and it’ll be downhill from there.
Player to watch:
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany, midfielder
With Ballack out, Schweinsteiger is the face of the German midfield. An eight-year veteran at Bayern Munich despite being just 26, Schweinsteiger makes the most impact by volume — the more he has the ball, the better influence he’ll have on the match. And he does so with physical play as well as skill. Germany has never lost a match in which he’s scored.
Game to watch:
Ghana vs. Germany, June 23, 2:30 p.m.
At least one African team has to survive the group stage, but by the time Ghana plays its third match, the continent’s representatives from Groups A, B and C (South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria) might already be done. What would be perceived as an upset over the Germans could send the Black Stars through for the second straight World Cup.