Jurgen Klinsmann’s side literally couldn’t have made a better start to the tournament, with Clint Dempsey scoring their opener against Ghana after just 29 seconds. Having been pegged back by a late Andre Ayew equaliser, USA showed commendable guts to go up the other end and grab a winner through John Anthony Brooks. The Hertha Berlin defender’s shell-shocked goal celebration will be one of this World Cup’s enduring images. USA surprised me by beating the Ghanaians, but some of the weaknesses I expected to see were fully evident. Despite the presence of two holding midfielders (Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones), the States allowed Ghana to get to the edge of their penalty area far too easily, and full-backs Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley can be exposed by pace and trickery. The Black Stars were allowed a hefty 21 goal attempts, and the fact that only three were on target says more about Ghana’s ineptitude than USA’s defensive strength. The injury picture is a mixed one for Klinsmann. Hulking forward Jozy Altidore is definitely out with a damaged hamstring, but skipper Dempsey should play despite a broken nose, and centre-back Matt Besler has been passed fit. Although Altidore’s recent goal-scoring form is patchy, his absence is certainly a blow. The Sunderland striker uses his strength to hold the ball up and allow the midfield players to join the attack. Potential replacements Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski are both adept finishers, but neither could be described as an effective target-man.
If USA couldn’t have made a better start to the tournament, Portugal couldn’t have imagined a worse one. A 4-0 drubbing by Germany was calamitous for so many reasons. Joao Pereira clumsily fouled Mario Gotze to give the Germans an early penalty, and the back-line stood motionless as Mats Hummels thumped home a bullet header from a corner to make it 2-0. Pepe then got himself sent off for the lowest head-butt of all time on Thomas Muller, and the carnage really began. Muller completed his hat-trick as Portugal dissolved. To make matters worse, influential left-back Fabio Coentrao has been ruled out of the rest of the World Cup with a thigh injury, and central striker Hugo Almeida isn’t fully fit. Of course, the burning question is over the fitness of star man Cristiano Ronaldo, who is undoubtedly struggling with a knee problem. He would want to continue playing if his leg actually fell off, and so far the Portugal camp have been bullish about his chances of starting the match. Young striker Eder failed to impress after replacing the injured Almeida, so coach Paulo Bento may plump for the more experienced Helder Postiga to lead the line, with Nani and Ronaldo his wingmen. Andre Almeida should get the nod at left-back, while Valencia skipper Ricardo Costa is a strong replacement for Pepe at the heart of defence.
The signs are that Cristiano Ronaldo will start the match, and that he is in slightly better shape than he was against Germany. If that proves to be true, then USA have a real test on their hands. Although he ultimately proved ineffective against Germany, Nani showed a couple of flashes of inspiration, and the Manchester United winger will love running at this American back-four. While Ghana played into USA’s hands by pumping crosses at Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, I expect Portugal to keep the ball on the deck a lot more in a bid to expose Besler’s lack of pace. Beckerman and Jones will have to close down Portugal play maker Joao Moutinho whenever they can, because if they give him room, he can unlock that rearguard with his precise passing. It’s worth remembering the Monaco man created ten goals in qualifying. It really is make-or-break for Portugal, as a defeat will almost certainly send them packing, and a draw probably takes qualification out of their hands. The loss of Pepe and Coentrao is slightly damaging but their replacements are competent, and if Ronaldo and Nani catch fire, I can see them giving USA plenty of problems. USA are a better side going forward than they are defensively, and this was shown not only against Ghana, but in their World Cup warm-ups as well. Portugal averaged two goals per game in qualifying, and they do have players who can break down most defences eventually. The market is pretty much split down the middle.
2 units – Over 2.5 goals. (-102)
2 units – Portugal win (-125)
-0.06 units (5-6)