7 teams, 3 spots left
Fabio Capello (AFP)
RIO DE JANEIRO — It's the last day of the group stage at the World Cup, and seven teams are still vying for the last three spots in the Round of 16.
While most teams are either on their way home or preparing for the knockout stage, there's still everything to play for in the finely balanced Group G, where all four teams still have a chance to go through.
The biggest matchup of the day pits the United States against Germany in a game that could put both teams through and will determine whether the Ghana-Portugal game has any real significance.
The only team that can afford to relax a little is Belgium, which has already advanced to the knockout round after winning its first two matches. The Belgians still need a point against South Korea to top Group H, though, while Algeria could claim the other spot with at least a draw against Russia.
Here are the main things to watch for Thursday:
NO FRIENDLY TRUCE
When the U.S. takes on Germany, it's one of those rare games when both teams will be happy with a draw. Just don't expect either team to play for one.
Both countries have four points in Group G and a draw would put both through to the next round, with Germany as group winner on goal difference. Germany, though, badly wants to beat its former coach and star player Jurgen Klinsmann, who is now in charge of the U.S. team. The Americans, meanwhile, need a win to avoid Belgium in the next round. Add in the fact that five players on the U.S. team have German mothers, and there's no shortage of plot lines that go beyond just the result.
Klinsmann said, "I don't think that we are made for draws," while Germany defender Mats Hummels said it would be "highly unsportsmanlike" not to go for a win.
Venue: Recife. Kickoff 6pm SA time.
HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW?
Cristiano Ronaldo's World Cup campaign has been more notable for his changing hair styles than his football performances. For Portugal to have any chance of advancing, the world player of the year will have to come up with something really special against Ghana.
Portugal needs a big win coupled with a decisive result in the U.S.-Germany game to have a chance of going through to the knockout stage. However, its 4-0 loss to Germany means its poor goal difference will be difficult to overcome — especially if Ronaldo continues to struggle as he has the first two games. The Real Madrid star has been held scoreless in Brazil, but did set up Portugal's last-gasp equalizer for 2-2 draw against the Americans with a perfect cross deep into injury time. He received more attention for his haircut in that game, which included a zigzag design shaved into the right side of head. On Wednesday he was sporting a new look again in training. It remains to be seen if it brings him more luck on the pitch.
Venue: Brasilia. Kickoff 6pm SA time.ASIA'S LAST CHANCE
South Korea is the only Asian team that still has a chance to reach the second round, but to call it slim would be an understatement. South Korea not only has to beat Belgium — which is already through after two wins — but needs the result of the Algeria-Russia game to go its way as well. If Russia draws or wins, South Korea could finish second on goal difference. Those mathematical permutations are unlikely to come into play, however, as South Korea has shown little so far to indicate it can beat the Belgians, who need at least a draw to secure top spot in Group H. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said he won't make any wholesale changes to rest players, but will bench those who risk suspension with another yellow card — like midfielder Axel Witsel and defender Toby Alderweireld. Defender — while captain Vincent Kompany is out with an injury.
Venue: Sao Paulo. Kickoff 10pm SA time.
DANCING INTO THE NEXT ROUND
Ever seen a football coach dance? If not, keep an eye on the Algeria-Russia game in Curitiba. Algeria coach Vahid Halilhodzic has promised to put on quite a show if his team gets a win to move into the second round for the first time in its history. "Afterwards I can sing, I can dance," he said. "I think even you Algerian journalists will appreciate that."
Algeria hadn't won a World Cup match since 1982 before a 4-2 victory over South Korea in Brazil. Now it's likely to advance even with a draw against a Russia lineup that has failed to live up to expectations under coach Fabio Capello. Halilhodzic said the game was "the most important match" in Algeria's history. It would also help erase some of the memories from the 1982 tournament, where Algeria was denied a spot in the second round after West Germany and Austria played out a result that suited them both.
Russia still has a chance of advancing with a victory, but needs to improve on its previous two unconvincing performances — a loss to Belgium and draw with South Korea.
Venue: Curitiba. Kickoff 10pm SA time.