Germany head to Brazil aiming to end their 24-year wait for a fourth World Cup title, having finished third on the previous two occasions.
It's 12 years since the Germans had last reached the final of the World Cup, which was in 2002 against Brazil. “I do not want to go out in the semi-finals again or visit Brazil just to soak up the sun,” insists captain Philipp Lahm, who’s spent a decade in the Germany team.
“I have a clear goal… To achieve the biggest possible success and win the World Cup.”
In order to break the duck, improved counter-attack and a tighter defence are the key areas coach Joachim Loew (in pic) wants to work upon.
The squad is packed with attacking potential, but there have been rumours of discontent in the past with disgruntled stars disrupting the squad’s harmony from the bench at both the 2012 European Championships and in the World Cup qualifiers.
The 24-year wait for a fourth World Cup title is Germany’s longest since first winning the global crown in 1954.
Younger members of the squad, including midfield star Mario Gotze, were yet to be born when the then West Germany emerged champions in the 1990 World Cup — the last time the Germans were crowned world champions.
In the past, Loew’s strength has been to instil impressive cohesion into his side by hours of drilling. But injuries and a lack of fitness in his first-choice stars could hamper the process.
Lars Bender’s withdrawal has removed a defensive midfield option with Loew’s first-choice pairing of vice-captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira both lacking fitness after respective knee injuries.
And, Saturday last, Marco Reus was ruled out due to an ankle injury.
It’s big blow to Loew, who does not have the luxury of a settled back four and is also low on options up front with only two recognised strikers in his squad.
Portugal may not be a favourite to win the World Cup but their coach Paulo Bento (in pic) believes that works in their favour and rivals should beware. Bento’s belief will face a stern test at the first hurdle, even with Cristiano Ronaldo in the team, as Portugal have been drawn in Group G with strongly-fancied Germany, 2010 quarter-finalists Ghana and the United States. However, 44-year-old Bento - who was rewarded with a two-year contract extension in April — says that the team is becoming stronger every day.
Whether they have made enough progress to emulate the sides of 1966 and 2006 who reached the semi-finals is questionable, but Bento remains convinced of the team’s potential.
“Over the 90 minutes, we could really have achieved that objective of reaching the final (the penalty shootout loss to Spain in Euro 2012 semi-final),” Bento had said.
Bento said Portugal now are operating differently to previous sides.
“There are things we are doing differently now in terms of preparation, in terms of our training, our strategies — they are different from what we did in 2010 or 2011,” he said.
Bento’s words did not seem to be supported by what transpired in their World Cup qualifying campaign as they struggled to reach Brazil. They were held to draws at home by Israel and Northern Ireland on the way to finishing second in their group behind Russia. As a result, they were forced to come through a play-off to reach the finals.
Happily, though, for Bento World Player of the Year Ronaldo produced two performances that swept aside the doubters.
The 29-year-old scored all the goals in a 4-2 aggregate victory in the two-legged tie with Sweden, including a stunning hat-trick in the second leg in Solna. Ronaldo was dealing with a thigh problem and hampered by tendinitis in his left leg. But he is in line for a morale-boosting return to the squad which would have to improve its performance level by a few notches if it wants to better 1966 show.
One thing that has really hurt Portugal in the past is the lack of a truly top-class centre-forward, which has long been an issue, but another veteran Helder Postiga scored six goals in qualifying, including the winner at home against Russia.
Bento also has options in that area with Sporting’s William Carvalho shaping up well.
Ghana are confident they can claw their way into the knock-out stage. The Black Stars reached the round of 16 in their World Cup debut in 2006 in Germany and reached the last eight four years ago in South Africa. Now they want to become the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the tournament.
Captain Asamoah Gyan, who appeared at both previous finals, said that Ghana will raise their game in Brazil. “The thing about Ghana all the time is that whenever we play against a big team, we perform,” said Gyan.
“That is what happened with us when we were going to the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
“And that is what happened with the Egypt (World Cup play-off) game where everyone got involved.
“And I believe it will happen again at this World Cup.”
Ghana were unstoppable when they dumped seven-time African champions Egypt 7-3 on aggregate to book their passage to Brazil 2014. It was a vintage performance by the west African side in Kumasi, where they blew away Egypt 6-1 in the first leg. Gyan scored twice.
They will be in Brazil with a more experienced squad after Michael Essien rejoined the team and they now have more viable options upfront with the emergence of Majeed Waris and Christian Atsu.
Coach Kwesi Appiah (in pic), who was an assistant coach at the South Africa finals, has won the confidence of his players, despite rumours that he would be replaced with a foreign manager.
Germany are favourites to win Group G, leaving the other automatic qualifying spot wide open. Ghana open the campaign against the United States on June 16 in Natal. They have beaten the Americans on their two previous meetings at the World Cup.
In 2006, Ghana won 2-1 in a group game and four years later they eliminated the Americans again by the same scoreline in the round of 16.
Their subsequent quarter-final appearance ended in heartbreak when Luis Suarez infamously handed out Dominic Adiyiah's header at the goalline in the closing moments. Gyan went on to miss the ensuing penalty and Uruguay advanced later on penalties.
Jurgen Klinsmann (in pic) has not hesitated to take unpopular decisions in his mission to toughen up the United States team going into the World Cup finals.
That includes the World Cup stunner to leave out Landon Donovan, the Americans’ all-time leading scorer . The progress may not be clear in the results, but Klinsmann has backing for his tactics as he prepares to take on his former country in the group stage.
The 49-year-old coach, who as a player helped Germany capture the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championship, took over the American side in 2011.
Klinsmann, who guided the Germans to third in the 2006 World Cup on home soil, was the first non-US coach in 16 years for the Americans, but his success in leading North American qualifying for the World Cup was rewarded with a four-year contract extension last December that will keep him in the post through the 2018 World Cup.
“I am very fortunate to continue the work we started more than two and half years ago,” Klinsmann said. “It’s exciting to see the progress we have made. We continue to make improvements on all fronts.”
Klinsmann has made goalkeeper Tim Howard, strikers Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore and midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones the “spine” of a US squad that have developed backbone but have been unable to duplicate their run to the 2002 quarter-finals in the past two World Cups.
Klinsmann has juggled line-ups often in analysing talent, a move that upset some players, notably when he benched defender and former captain Carlos Bocanegra just before the first qualifier last year at Honduras. Klinsmann saw it as another test of character as well as talent.
The Americans came together to advance and the wisdom of Klinsmann’s toughening efforts proved out in the end.