World Cup Group D preview
Even without Michael Ballack, Germany's pedigree should see it through the group
Serbia's a dark-horse contender with a solid back line and dangerous wingers
Group D is undoubtedly the deepest in the World Cup with no real weak spots
Projected order of finish in Group D:
1. Germany -- In 2006, a not-terribly-strong Germany made it to the semis, and Joachim Low's current crop expects at least as much, despite the gaping hole left in midfield by injured captain Michael Ballack. The Germans have incredible World Cup pedigree, and should be strong enough to escape the group despite a spate of last-minute injuries.
Low looks set to stick with 4-2-3-1, having drafted in Stuttgart's Sami Khedira as a direct replacement for Ballack, and it's a system that sees them pressing from the front and snapping from defense to attack in an instant. Question marks remain over forwards Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski due to their club form, but both are unerring on the international stage.
2. Serbia -- Group D is wide open but Serbia is well fancied, having won its UEFA qualifying group ahead of France. This is a skilful, organized team with a strong spine, and coach Raddy Antic is rarely guilty of orchestrating negative football. Usually lining up in a 4-4-2, Serbia makes the most of two excellent wingers, Milos Krasic and Milan Jovanovic, to attack at lethal pace, moving seamlessly into an intimidating 4-3-3. That said, these players aren't afraid to resort to Route One stuff when the situation demands it, and when you've got the likes of defenders Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic, and lanky striker Nikola Zigic at your disposal, why not?
3. Ghana: January's African Cup of Nations, at which it finished runner-up, pointed up Ghana's impressive strength in depth. With Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari all missing from the middle of a typically no-nonsense 4-1-3-2, some of Ghana's U20 World Cup 2009 winners stepped in and proved their mettle. But Group D will be different without Essien, who was ruled out last week. Coach Milovan Rajevac, buoyed by what he saw in January, remains optimistic and has promised "winning football." Ghana is certainly capable of scaring opponents, especially if Asamoah Gyan gets chances to peel off the last defender, but has looked a little flat coming into the tournament.
4. Australia -- The Socceroos probably deserve better than to be hailed for their never-say-die attitude, but it remains their standout attribute -- and having carried them to the second round last time out, it's not to be discounted. The lineup is much like that of 2006, which should help that team spirit, too. Australia has a strong defense and an excellent goalkeeper in Mark Schwarzer. The pragmatism in coach Pim Verbeek's 4-2-3-1 (which effectively became 4-6-0 to shut out China in qualifying) will make Australia difficult to break down; it went unbeaten in the final round of qualifying. Going forward, however, it might struggle against the strong, well-organized defenses in Group D -- it failed to fill their boots when facing leaky sides like Qatar, Bahrain and Uzbekistan.
2010 World Cup
1. Mesut Ozil, Germany -- Think of Germany and chances are you won't think of flair if your memory only goes back as far as recent incarnations. Ozil, Werder Bremen's dazzling 21-year-old playmaker, is the remedy. Always looking forward, with Velcro ball control and a handy turn of pace, Ozil was instrumental in Germany's U21 European Championship triumph last year. His approach and set-up play is superb -- he racked up 19 assists in the Bundesliga this season -- and with Ballack missing, Ozil looks set to enhance his reputation by being the conduit for Germany's most dangerous moments in front of goal.
2. Milan Jovanovic, Serbia -- Jovanovic was signed on a free transfer by Liverpool earlier this year and it looks like Rafa Benitez has got himself a real bargain. Jovanovic brings skill and ingenuity to the left flank, where he flits from the wing to attack with ease. His link up play is his key strength -- he always seems to end up in the right spot with the ball at his feet nonetheless. Dangerous with a dead or moving ball, Jovanovic will try a shot from almost anywhere, with either foot -- he bagged five goals in eight qualifiers to finish the campaign as Serbia's top scorer.
3. Luke Wilkshire, Australia -- Tim Cahill is still (rightly) identified as Australia's most potent player, but keep an eye on the far less starry Wilkshire. He has come on in leaps and bounds since 2006, when he was a surprise starter against Italy and Japan, having moved from English minnows Bristol City to first FC Twente in the Netherlands and now Dynamo Moscow. Typically played at right back, he has the versatility and technique to push up to the wing if required, and proved in qualifying that he can pull the Socceroos' strings from a holding midfield role given the chance. Capable of the Hollywood distribution of the likes of David Beckham, his set pieces will be an important outlet.
4. Kwadwo Asamoah, Ghana -- In the absence of Essien, Asamoah will move in to act as the midfield pivot, and there are plenty of Ghanaians who think he'll more than fill the Chelsea man's boots, having seen him playing in front of Essien and Anthony Annan versus Sudan and Mali in the qualifiers. That he was just as effective in the patched-up Cup of Nations midfield bodes well. As well as matching Essien for strength and composure, Asamoah, who plays his club football in Italy for Udinese, isn't scared to take people on with the ball at his feet. His distribution is thoughtful and accurate, and he has a habit of popping up in the penalty box.
Since the Socceroos starts their group campaign against Germany, the game against Ghana on June 19 is crucial. It could be their first chance to get points on the board; for Ghana, who have to finish against the Germans, this could well be the last. Ghana has won neither of the previous two encounters with Australia, but both were friendlies. Each side is defensively disciplined but short on goal-getting magic up top, so the battle in midfield will be crucial to the outcome here.
The other potentially decisive game in the race for second place will be the opener between Serbia and Ghana on June 13 -- though Ghana is the favorite, both sides will feel they can secure a confidence-boosting first victory. And although it's likely Australia won't get off to a winning start against Germany later that day, neither side can really afford to go into the second group games without a point, which means this could be an enjoyably frantic encounter.
This is an extremely open group and the race for the knockout stages could well be a photo finish, but the Serbs knit dynamism and quality to a greater degree than their competitors and should make it home in second behind the Germans.
Georgina Turner has worked as a sports journalist since 2003. She covers the English Premier League, but also reports on tennis and women's sports for UK magazines.