DARK HORSE OR FALLING STARS?
If World Cup Group E really is the 'Group of Death', then Ghana could be first to the funeral.
A woeful performance in the recent African Cup of Nations and the loss of a key player for the finals has made the West Africans odds-on favorite for the wooden spoon, and at 250/1, some way behind the USA's 80/1 to win the tournament.
While it is possible that both teams' fates may already have been decided when the US face Ghana in their final group game on June 22nd, there will probably still be qualification to play for and the Black Stars cannot be taken for granted.
Ghana, ranked 50th in the world, are down in the dumps - eliminated at the group stage of the African Cup of Nations with a 1-0 defeat of Senegal sandwiched between losses to Nigeria (1-0) and Zimbabwe (2-1).
"Our performance at CAN 2006 exposed several inadequacies in the team," association president Kwasi Nyantaki admitted, adding Ghana's premature exit 'was painful, but is a blessing in disguise because we were beginning to get complacent'.
In Egypt, the Black Stars found themselves in another 'group of death' alongside traditional powerhouses Nigeria and Senegal, and went out on goal difference.
On the other hand, none of the Black Stars' opponents in Egypt had qualified for Germany this summer. Then in their final game, which they only needed to tie, Ghana lost to a Zimbabwe team who had finished third in their World Cup qualifying group, six points adrift of second place.
The Ghanaians are the long-time underachievers of African football, a force in their own continent since shortly after their association was formed in 1957 with four African Nations titles to their name between 1963 and 1982, but until now always the bridesmaid when it came to the World Cup.
The West African state is blessed with a talent base that has produced Abedi Pele, Nii Lamptey and Tony Yeboah, the winners of the FIFA Under-17 World Championship in 1991 and 1995 and the runners up in the Under-20 version in 2001.
To reach Germany, Ghana won what was probably the weakest of the five groups in the final round of African qualifying, scoring 17 and conceding four in 10 games. They finished five points clear of second place DR Congo, with the waning power of South Africa in third.
Making up the numbers in African Group 2 were Cape Verde, Uganda and Burkina Faso, who inflicted the Black Stars' only qualifying defeat, 1-0 in Ougadougou back in June of 2004.
Predicting Ghana's performance against the world is not easy when their only game against a non-African team last year was a 3-1 win against Saudi Arabia. They began 2006 with friendly defeats against Togo and Tunisia but face Mexico on March 1st in Dallas, where you can bet US Soccer's spies will be glued to the game.
The Black Stars may have felt high in the sky when they qualified back in October of 2005, but could come down to earth with a bump when they begin their campaign against Italy in Hannover on June 12th.
The Italians, despite being traditionally slow tournament starters, are eager to erase memories of their controversial exit to Korea in 2002 and are in no mood to lose an opening game to a lesser ranked opponent again, having been pilloried after defeat by Ireland in the 'Brooklyn-Queens derby' of USA 1994.
If the Italians provide a rude awakening, then five days later the Czech Republic, ranked No.2 in FIFA's World Rankings, could turn Ghana's first World Cup into a real baptism of fire. A loss to the USA in Nuremburg on June 22nd would then complete a sobering experience.
But there is still room for optimism, not least in the impressive way Ghana made it to Germany and the fact they were lacking three players in Egypt, including Michael Essien.
The Chelsea star, who came to prominence in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup, is Africa's most expensive footballer and his slick shows for the runaway Premiership leaders following championship winning heroics with Lyon are beginning to justify his $46 million price tag.
Essien is the man Ghana's 20-million population are really pinning their hopes on this summer. Such is his African superstar status that if he does not play, the team's morale and certainly that of the supporters may well crumble.
But an Essien-less Ghana has been raised as a possibility when his country's association labeled him 'unpatriotic' after he failed to join the squad in Egypt because of a suspicious ankle injury, a setback he had miraculously recovered from as soon as Ghana were eliminated.
African associations treat this sort of thing seriously, but surely only the most obtuse country would tell its best player he was not required at the World Cup.
Confirming there is tension between Ghana's boss and their star player, Essien's 'forgive me' statement betrayed a house divided:
"I love Ghana very much, and therefore humbly plead that we all put our differences aside and focus our attention on our common goal of helping the Black Stars achieve great things at the World Cup in Germany," it read, before he asked Ghanaians for their 'prayers and support in these difficult times'.
Somehow I cannot see Landon Donovan doing the same.
The 23-year old plays the same anchoring role for his country, but also scored three goals in the qualifiers in attacking cameos he has recently begun to replicate for the Stamford Bridge side with left-sided raids.
Essien apart, the Ghana stars best known in the football world remain Fenerbahce's much traveled midfielder Steven Appiah and Borussia Dortmund striker Matthew Amoah, two men the US must neutralize in Nuremburg.
Appiah, whom Ghana's Serbian coach Radomir Dujkovic describes as 'my right arm', is well known to Serie A watchers having spent nine years in Italy with Udinese, Parma, Brescia and Juventus. Despite his vast experience, the left-footed midfielder will still only be 25 come the finals.
A prodigious athlete and almost complete footballer, the Accra born midfielder reveled in the freedom given to him in the qualifiers, creating space, distributing freely and supporting attack and defense with equal aplomb.
The Tornado is also a goal-getter, Ghana's equal top scorer in the qualifiers and a danger from distance - as his stunning strike for Fenerbahce in a 2005 Champions League match against Schalke proved.
Appiah is lastly a proficient ball winner well used to supporting Ghana's unsteady back four, a duty he will surely be called upon to perform alongside Essien at World Cup.
Udinese's Sulley Muntari completes the impressive Ghana midfield and also missed out on Egypt through injury, but is a sure starter when fit.
In a tale that echoes that of Ghana-born Freddy Adu, a 16-year old Muntari played every game for the U-20 team that finished second at 2001's World Youth Cup, eliminating a Brazil side that featured Kakà and Adriano along the way.
A blend of all the traditional qualities of African football – pace, power and technique – Muntari also has the familiar African footballing flaw of hot-headedness and remains a card risk for the Black Stars.
Sent home in shame from the 2004 Olympics, the then-20 year old refused to play for his country again, setting a then world record for the youngest ever announced international retirement (retracted a few months later in time to play a starring role in the World Cup qualifiers).
But old habits die hard and Muntari has just received a three-game ban in Serie A for pole-axing Pavel Nedved, an opponent in Germany this summer, and then throwing his shirt on the referee.
The center remains the heart of Ghana's hopes for victory, and the area of the field their opponents should worry about the most.
Ghana's midfield did suffer a severe blow, however, when Laryea Kingston clashed – rather innocuously it must be said – with Senegal's Habib Beye in their group clash on Jan 27th and both players were sent off.
Kingston, a dynamo who plays his football in Russia for Lokomotiv Moscow and is one of Ghana's most potent attacking aces, received a stinging four-match ban which means he will miss their group games in Germany and can only return for the knockout stages.
Up front, Ghana are less of a worry than Italy or the Czechs, but in Matthew Amoah there is a wily forward the US will have to nullify. The 25-year old marksman now plies his trade in the Bundesliga after nine seasons in the Netherlands, eight of them with Vitesse Arnhem.
A classic poacher who drifts around the penalty box and hugs the last line of defense before springing into attack, Amoah ghosts in at the last moment to strike with a rapier thrust, a well-honed technique he showed again in Egypt with the goal that sank Senegal.
Whether Bruce Arena goes for a man-marking or zonal approach to stop Amoah, at least he knows it is in the last eighteen where the US will have to watch out for him. The Ghanaian, rather like Hernan Crespo or Gary Lineker (whose style he closely resembles) is of little danger from distance.
Modena's Asamoah Gyan, 20, also missed the African Cup through injury, but was the other top scorer in the qualifiers - although he has often had to sit out as Dujkovic leaves Amoah up front alone, a formation that had skipper Appiah appealing publicly for a return to 4-4-2.
Thus are Ghana's 'famous five': Appiah, Essien, Amoah, Gyan and Muntari. To that list could be added Sammy Kuffour, the Bayern Munich veteran now at Roma, who has established himself as one of Europe's finest defenders of recent years.
Ghana tend to play with Amoah as the lone striker in a 4-3-2-1 formation but recently have switched to 4-4-2. The team's system is one of silky, quick passing from defense to the front, and when they are in attack can be a pleasure to watch for neutrals as all the players seem comfortable on the ball and eager to play it to feet.
When on the back foot, however, they look less secure. While the center of defense has some steel and Kuffour's experience, overlapping full backs John Paintsil and Emmanuel Pappoe look less solid and were exposed several times in Egypt, a window of opportunity for DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Lewis and whomever Bruce Arena will play on the right.
Ghana's defense is their Achilles heel; at times in Egypt, they were at sixes and sevens. In the one game Ghana won, Senegal pinned them back for most of the second half and were unlucky not to level.
The coach Dujkovic is 59 and well-schooled in international football, having managed Venezuela, Myanmar and Rwanda before taking over Ghana in December 2004.
He began as a member of the coaching staff of Red Star's glorious 1991 European Cup winning team and has remained a proponent of their attacking style ever since.
Dujkovic claims his players' European experience has endowed them with enough technical and tactical nous that his role has been centered around instilling discipline and team spirit. However, he will also need to call on his improvisational skills when, as is likely, things get tough at the World Cup and he needs to make changes.
If the African Cup of Nations was anything to go by he will have his work cut out in Germany.
African teams are traditionally accused of being 'naïve' - plenty of individual skill, speed and muscle, but short of defensive experience and mental robustness, and Ghana cannot claim to have completely thrown off this mantle, unfair as it may seem.
If their confidence is tested after their rude awakening against Italy and the Czechs, Dujkovic must be alert to stop the squad's team morale disintegrating, especially as some of the senior players could be the problem.
African players who have become millionaires with top European clubs often regard national team duty as a toil and find it a challenge to get motivated for 'unpaid' duties that entail jet lag, poor training facilities and obeying zero-tolerance disciplinarians who have no time for 'stars'.
Egypt 2006 saw Mido of Egypt and Togo's Emmanuel Adebayor continue the 'dinner plates' tradition of Europe-based Africans, throwing tantrums while Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o refused to even speak to the press.
There is clearly potential for friction in the Ghana camp with Muntari's disciplinary record and Essien's extraordinary recent public pronouncement that he looked on Dujkovic 'as a father' after the coach appeared to question the truth behind his ankle injury.
Dujkovic has publicly accused clubs of inventing injuries and was recently angered not only by Essien's last minute get-out, but also that he learned about some player withdrawals from the press first.
Kuffour is another "personality" in the dressing room, sent home in disgrace from the 2002 African Cup of Nations for being a disruptive influence and "fired" twice by Dujkovic, missing most of the World Cup qualifying campaign in the process but rehabilitated in time for the recent African Cup of Nations.
Ghana's biggest weakness, though, remains an acute lack of strength in depth, a shortcoming illuminated by the failed campaign in Egypt where their first choice replacements looked worryingly short of big match know-how and Ghana's talent pool a little shallower than was previously thought.
Since World Cups bring injuries and suspensions, a coach can seldom field his best eleven as the tournament progresses and this could give the States and their comparatively experienced and well-drilled roster an important edge come June 22nd.
The "unknown quantity" factor can work both ways, if Dujkovic's comments to African Soccer magazine are anything to go by:
"The USA appears to be the weakest team," he stated, "but even they have more experience than our team. We are not disrespecting any side, but taking on the USA will give me the least amount of sleepless nights."
Both teams will have played the group's two powerhouses before their 22nd June clash, and if results go to form, Ghana will already have been eliminated by kick off.
However, a Ghana with nothing to play for could still work against a US team still in the hunt. Remember this was the exact scenario in Daejeon in 2002 - an already eliminated Poland, with no pressure on them but a reputation to uphold after two defeats, cruised with ease past a nervous US 3-1.
Ghana v US could be the irrelevant match of the group of death with only that old chestnut of pride to play for, but if 2002 taught us anything it was that soccer is played on grass and not on paper!
How about this as the group decider? Whatever the stakes, given the form and qualities of both teams, the US should fancy their chances of taking all three points.
That said, Ghana have some dangerous players and as Cameroon proved to the world in 1990, you underestimate African teams at your peril.