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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
ESPNsoccernet: June 12, 1:28 PM UK
World Cup 2010, Group D

Kevin Palmer and Nick Bidwell

Group D: Germany | Australia | Serbia | Ghana
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Coach: Joachim Low
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1/4-4-2
Key man: Miroslav Klose
Wildcard: Mesut Ozil
Weak spot: How to replace skipper Ballack

The fear of a last minute injury to a key performer keeps a World Cup coach awake at night and Germany chief Joachim Low suffered his worst nightmare when captain Michael Ballack was injured playing for Chelsea in the FA Cup final.

In truth, the predictable headlines in the German media suggesting the absence of the veteran team leader was the end of Low's World Cup dream are not misplaced as the Nationalmannschaft has no way of filling the void left by Ballack's demise, with the coach set to be tested to the full in what are already uncomfortably warm waters lapping around him.

Low was considered to be the tactical master behind Jurgen Klinsmann's Germany side that reached the World Cup semi-finals on home soil four years ago and yet the criticism of 'Jogi' has been mounting in recent months. Portrayed in some quarters as a cash-hungry mercenary as his long-running contract dispute became something of a saga, he appreciates the mood will turn against him quickly if Germany fail in South Africa.

He will rely on a team packed full of experienced tournament performers, along with a couple of new faces who should provide the Nationalmannschaft with a touch of the unexpected that has not always been a part of their set-up.

Chief among the new wave is Mesut Ozil, who will be expected to lead the charge in Ballack's absence. Werder Bremen playmaker Ozil has added a touch of craft to the German side and his ability to switch between a central role and a roaming berth on the left flank makes him a tough man to track. He has a tendency to drift out of games at times, but there will be no room for slacking this summer.

Bastian Schweinsteiger becomes even more central to Jogi Low's line-up as he will be expected to provide even more experience and bite in a bid to fill the hole left by Ballack, with the theory that the side lacks leadership brought into clearer focus. Experienced defenders Per Mertesacker and Philipp Lahm have the potential to take on talisman roles as well now.

However, out of adversity can often emerge a solution and Low may be tempted to use his more offensive 4-4-2 formation on a more consistent basis. Bayern Munich's Mario Gomez or Bayer Leverkusen's Stefan Kiessling can support scoring machine Miroslav Klose who has ten World Cup goals to his credit from his efforts in the 2002 and 2006 finals.

Coach: Pim Verbeek
Preferred formation: 4-2-3-1
Key man: Tim Cahill
Wildcard: Harry Kewell
Weak spot: Lack of depth in the squad

When you are playing against the sort of modest opposition Australia come up against on a regular basis, it's easy to have an attack-at-all-costs policy, but Dutch coach Pim Verbeek has tried to sprinkle a touch of reality into the Socceroos mentality.

The gulf in class between their qualifying opponents and the sides they face in major tournaments led Verbeek to conclude that a touch of additional steel was required in his line-up and so his 4-2-3-1 line-up is based around the holding midfield duo of Vince Grella (Blackburn) and Jason Culina (Gold Coast United). Both offer plenty of midfield energy and ball-winning skills, allowing the flair players in this side to shine.

First off the rank in the attacking third is generally Tim Cahill, the brilliant midfield runner who has proved to be such a hit since making a move from the lower leagues of English football to join Everton back in 2004. A deadly finisher with head or foot, his ability to time his runs to perfection is crucial to the Aussie game plan.

Socceroos veteran Harry Kewell may be listed as the lone front man in Verbeek's formation, but the reality is that Cahill will spend as much time ahead of the former Liverpool and Leeds forward as he does feeding him quality balls. Both Kewell and Cahill are midfielders, but they are at their best when breaking forward and Australia encourage the duo to use their assets to the full.

The wide positions also represent a useful attacking outlet for Australia, with Blackburn's Brett Emerton and Palermo's Mark Bresciano raiding on the right and left flank respectively. Nurnberg's Dario Vidosic offers decent back-up if either wide man are absent.

Galatasaray's Lucas Neill is the rock on which the Aussies base their defensive line around, with the veteran Craig Moore offering experience and leadership alongside him. Dynamo Moscow's Luke Wilkshire and FC Basel's Scott Chipperfield complete a back-line for a side that now has the experience to expect success in major tournaments.

The days of the Aussies hopping along as a novelty element in World Cup finals are long gone as this is a team full of proven performers at club and international level. They have every right to expect some success in South Africa.

Coach: Radomir Antic
Preferred formation: 4-4-2
Key man: Milos Krasic
Wildcard: Nicola Zigic
Weak spot: Doubts remain over 'keeper Stojkovic

This Serbian side may be famous for their rock-solid defensive line, but their coach is very much an advocate of attacking football.

Any national team boss blessed with the sort of powerhouse rearguard Radomir Antic has at his disposal will know he has a good chance to keeping things tight at the back, with Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic two of the best defenders heading to South Africa this summer. Lazio's Aleksandar Kolarov and Udinese's Aleksandar Lukovic complete a formidable back-four, though there are some question marks hanging over 'keeper Vladimir Stojkovic.

The challenge for opponents is getting past the four giants standing in front of the occasionally bumbling 'keeper in a bid to expose his flaws, with Serbia's defensive quartet appearing to have mastered the zonal defensive formation that is so often maligned when club sides such as Liverpool struggle with it.

Where this Serbian side differs from the outfit that flopped at the last World Cup finals is in the attacking elements within their side, with their haul of 22 goals in 2010 qualifying confirming they offer plenty of potency in the penalty box.

The key word when describing Serbia's attacking options must be variety. From 6'7" Valencia striker Nicola Zigic to his more skilful and lively striker partner Marko Pantelic, coach Ancic has a combination to test the best of defences. Few can match the big man in the air, while the increasingly confident Pantelic heads into this World Cup on the back of a great season with Ajax.

Serbia's midfield also offers enticing options. Nenad Milijas enjoyed a decent first season in the English Premier League with Wolves, while Milan Jovanovic scored goals aplenty in the 2010 World Cup qualifying push. Watch out for his incisive bursts of pace and finishing power on the left flank.

With Inter Milan veteran and Serbian skipper Dejan Stankovic holding it all together in his famously dominant fashion, it's little wonder that this eastern European machine is being viewed by many as dark horses to shine in South Africa this summer.

Serbia may have been handed a tough opening group, but they offer a tantalising potential to cause shocks aplenty.

Coach: Milovan Rajevac
Preferred formation: 4-1-3-2
Key man: Kwadwo Asamoah
Wildcard: Kevin-Prince Boateng
Weak spot: Michael Essien's absence will be felt

Michael Essien's failure to recover his fitness in time to make the World Cup party was the nightmare scenario Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac had been dreading - and so the process of trying to piece together a battle plan without the Black Stars' stricken inspirational skipper had to begin in earnest.

Such a dilemma is nothing new for Ghana as Essien's fitness has been an issue for some time now and his continued absence for club and country since he picked up his knee problem while on international duty last January has left a large cloud hovering over his long-term ambitions.

However, Ghana's fine performances in this year's African Nation's Cup confirmed that life without the brilliant and fragile Essien can be profitable, with the shadow stars in Rajevac's squad set to get their chance to prove they have what it takes to step up to the plate on the biggest stage of them all.

Leading the race to take over his leadership role should be Kwadwo Asamoah. After becoming Ghana's midfield heartbeat in Essien's absence during 2010 African Nations Cup, the Udinese star seems to have what it takes to provide creativity and inspiration in abundance in the heat of battle. If Asamoah turns on the style at this World Cup, there may yet be hope for the Black Stars.

Inter Milan star Sulley Muntari returns to the fold to inject additional class after some time away from the international scene due to disciplinary issues and he will also be looked upon to provide a leadership role. The experienced campaigner Stephen Appiah will be another with plenty of additional expectation on his broad shoulders now.

The Ghanaian attacking line will be led by Rennes' Asamoah Gyan, with his pace offering Ghana a potent attacking outlet. He will thrive at this World Cup if he gets the right service. His combination with NAC Breda's Matthew Amoah is a nice blend between the speedy and clinical.

A concern must come in the defensive third, where John Mensah has been struggling with his fitness during a loan spell in England with Sunderland and he is not likely to have too much experience alongside him.

Centre-back Issac Vorsah and right-back Samuel Inkoom may have been impressive in the African Nations Cup earlier this year, but they are still novices on the international stage. Meanwhile, 'keeper Richard Kingson is prone to the odd error and has barely played a game for club side Wigan this season.

The belated arrival of Kevin Prince-Boateng in the Ghana squad throws an additional touch of flair into the midfield and after his challenge ended Michael Ballack's World Cup ambitions, German fans will doubtless view the ex-Tottenham midfielder as public enemy number one this summer.

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