I'm going out on a limb here and guessing the vast majority of you won't be watching Portugal-Ghana particularly closely. Oh, sure, you'll know if one of the teams scores—you'll review the replays of each goal with joy or dread depending on the time and circumstance. You'll have an eye on this game—whether it be on your second screen, or in a smaller browser window on your office computer, or, for you lucky few without obligations, on the TV at the back of the bar. If things don't go well for the USA, you may find this game playing on all of your greatest anxieties and worst fears. But what can we expect from the match?
In recent days there have been distress signals from the Black Stars' camp. Rumblings suggest that the Ghanaian players were considering a boycott over unpaid World Cup appearance bonuses. The situation became dire enough for the Ghanaian president to intervene. According to various media reports, chartered planes carrying upwards of $3 million dollars in physical cash—the players apparently didn't trust promises of a wire transfer—have been sent to ensure that Ghana actually shows up for its final group stage game in Brasilia. And just today, we've learned that both Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince-Boateng have been kicked off the team.
What effect will this internal strife have on Ghana? That's impossible to know for sure but, if past precedent is anything to go on, teams who end up in squabbles over payment rarely perform well in the immediate aftermath. Cameroon, a prime example, flamed out in Group A after apparently refusing to board the plane to Brazil until their bonuses were secured.
On the field, Ghana should be the favorite against a dismal Portuguese side. The Black Stars have been impressive for long stretches in both appearances at this World Cup. Against the United States, Ghana dominated possession after conceding early and looked dangerous in attack. They were undone by atrocious shot selection and finishing. Naturally a counterattacking side, Ghana were frustrated by a deep US defensive line and found space in the 18-yard box hard to come by. In truth, the US defense was only unlocked by a tremendous no-look backheel from Asamoah Gyan and a brilliant diagonal run and finish from Olympique Marseille's André Ayew.
Against Germany, Ghana were allowed to play more on the counter and did so, especially on their second goal, to great effect. Muntari's interception and pinpoint pass released a breaking Gyan, who split the German back line and slotted home a rocket over the right shoulder of German keeper Manuel Neuer. Germany went from being comfortably in possession to down a goal in five seconds flat. Portugal's center backs have many of the same problems as Germans—they are on the slower side and often leave a lot of space between themselves and their deep-lying midfielders—but with few of their qualities. Ghana, if given the chance, could have a field day.
However, it's not all doom-and-gloom for Portugal. Despite their generally awful, often self-destructive play (I'm looking at you Pepe) they are still, miraculously, mathematically alive. If they can build on Cristiano Ronaldo and Silvestre Varela's last gasp cross-to-goal (that hurt to write) they have a genuine chance to give Ghana's defense fits.
Ronaldo, who needs little introduction, is one of the best dead-ball striker in the world. Ghana, for their part, have conceded two goals on corner kicks—both the byproduct of bad marking—and a third on a diagonal ball played into the box. When Mario Götze is winning a cross in the box (which he headed onto his knee for the best sloppy goal of the World Cup) you probably have systemic defensive flaws.
Portugal's need to chase the game should play directly into Ghana's hands. A blowout of Ghana is the only option for the Portuguese. That said, Portugal and Ghana may spend the opening 15 minutes of the game feeling out the other's strategy. Both teams have weapons that seem almost specifically designed to destroy their opponent... maybe we should just worry about the USA getting a point (or three).
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