By Neil Maidment, Nick Mulvenney and Alan Baldwin
Germany’s World Cup campaign begins with a tough encounter against Portugal on Monday, though they arrive in Brazil with confidence having won their last three encounters, not to mention every opening match of the tournament since 1990.
A standout first round game, the Group G clash at Salvador’s Forte Nova arena will see Germany’s attractive mix of expert defence and sweeping attacks, led by the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller, come up against a Portugal side containing goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo.
Portugal’s talismanic forward raised a collective sigh of relief in his home country last week when he returned to the side after a troublesome knee injury to shine in a 5-1 friendly victory over Ireland.
A thumbs up to journalists on Thursday confirmed he is fit.
Germany, semi-finalists in South Africa four years ago and favourites to top the group which also includes the United States and Ghana, have had fitness boosts too.
Manuel Neuer, Germany’s number one goalkeeper for four years, will start after recovering from a shoulder injury sustained last month, while Phillip Lahm has overcome an ankle injury and will feature in a holding midfield role rather than his traditional right back slot.
Bidding to end a 18-year title drought Germany coach Joachim Loew has been slow to offer many other clues as to how his side will line up
Portugal coach Paulo Bento has a fit squad after defender Pepe and midfielder Raul Meireles also shook off niggles.
With the Netherlands thumping Spain 5-1 at the Forte Nova arena on Friday, goals may well rain down once more in Salvador on Monday, with Germany having scored at least four times in four of their last six opening World Cup matches.
However, Portugal’s record of just one goal conceded in the group stage of the last two tournaments may prove a spoiler.
Elsewhere, notions of righting wrongs and exacting revenge will add an extra pinch of spice when Ghana take on the United States on Monday in a World Cup Group G match that looks like a must win for both teams.
With encounters against Germany and Portugal to come for both teams in arguably the toughest first round group, anything less than the full three points at the Dunas arena could be fatal to their hopes of a spot in the last 16.
Ghana lit up the last World Cup in South Africa when they came within one missed penalty of becoming the first African team to reach the last four after Luis Suarez’s
infamous handball in the quarter-final against Uruguay.
The United States’ last two World Cup campaigns have both been ended by the Black Stars so Juergen Klinsmann’s team will also feel they have a record to set straight.
Having predicted his team could reach the last four in Brazil after an impressive qualifying campaign, coach Kwesi Appiah has been trying to pour a little cold water on expectations back home.
“The United States are a very, very good team,” Appiah told the Ghana FA website.
“It’s not going to be easy. We have to make sure our players are playing their roles well. We hope to give them a very good game.”
Klinsmann, a World Cup winner as a player in 1990, has similarly tried to add a dose of realism to American ideas of what his team, ranked 13th in the world by FIFA, can do in Brazil.
In the other game of the day, planet football looked altogether different the last time Nigeria or Iran, who kick off their Group F adventure at Curitiba’s box-like Baixada Arena, won a match at a World Cup.
Back then, in another millennium, Brazil were the reigning champions while Spain wondered whether their long record of failure would ever end.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was a sprightly 60-something, Neymar only six and Lionel Messi a 10-year-old talent in the making.
Since France 1998, when Nigeria were a power to be reckoned with after beating Spain and Bulgaria to top their group, the Super Eagles have struggled to get off the ground in the tournament proper.
This time, however, they have every chance of making a flying start.
Monday’s is a match both sides will see as a must-win if they are to have any chance of progressing from a group that includes Messi’s heavily-fancied Argentina and exciting debutants Bosnia.
Coach Stephen ‘Big Boss’ Keshi, who captained the 1994 Nigerian side that reached the second round as winners of a group that also included former champions Argentina, is hoping to rekindle some of that magic.
Then, as now, Nigeria arrive as the African champions and even if their current squad is unpredictable and lacking the charisma and firepower of old, they will still start as favourites.
Nigeria’s finals record since that last victory in France stands at two draws and six defeats, even if they won the African Nations Cup in 2013.
They also failed to win any of their three pre-Cup friendlies on the way to Brazil and were outclassed in last year’s Confederations’ Cup.
Iran’s resume makes no better reading. Since they beat political foes the United States 2-1 in a memorable 1998 night in Lyon, a win sandwiched between two defeats, ‘Team Melli’ have been no more than World Cup makeweights.
Brazil marks only the fourth finals appearance for a team that last qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where they lost twice and drew once.
Now the top-ranked side in Asia, Iran do have an impressive defensive record and a manager with plenty of tactical acumen in former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz – who is tipped to leave after the tournament – and could spring a shock or two.