USA could rue naivety as Group of Death heads for riveting finale

The Rio Report

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The Group G narrative already contained Pepe’s madness, Andre Ayew’s passion and John Brooks' celebration tinged with disbelief when Silvestre Varela headed a dramatic equaliser for Portugal against the USA.

[LATE VARELA STRIKE RESCUES PORTUGAL]

It denied the Americans a ticket to the knockout stages and left the standings delicately poised. All four teams can still progress; all four can still crash out. It’s called the Group of Death for a reason.

CONCACAF’s best representative clubbed together with Europe’s most consistent performers and Africa’s standout nation four years ago in South Africa. Oh, and a side boasting the world’s finest player.

Accumulating four points from their opening two games is an amazing achievement for the United States. They head into their final match with Germany chasing a solitary point which will send them through. Their nagging concern? That the task should have been ticked off already in Manaus.

When Michael Bradley conceded possession in injury time, his side were immediately exposed with bodies needlessly committed downfield. The USA’s once rigid defence was forced to backpedal towards goal, with the midfield offering little resistance due to their position high up the pitch, and their shape unravelled as play shifted to the right flank.

DaMarcus Beasley sauntered across to Cristiano Ronaldo, but instead of putting the Ballon d’Or holder under pressure, he afforded his opponent the time and space to whip a delicious delivery into the path of Varela.

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Ronaldo clearly wasn’t 100 per cent match fit, but fitness is irrelevant when it comes to controlling the ball and flashing a cross into the penalty area. All of the United States’ previous tireless marshalling the forward was rendered pointless, with Beasley flailing out a limp leg when he should have got tighter.

A string of minor errors led to Portugal’s equaliser, but they were the difference between three points and the one they ended up with.

In truth, the Americans would have probably taken a point when Nani capitalised on an error to send Portugal ahead – showing brilliant composure to floor Tim Howard with a slight feint before rifling into the roof of the net.

It looked as though Nani was ready to propel his nation to victory, eager to have a run at an opponent while his team-mates seemed content appeasing Ronaldo. But the enigma that is the Manchester United winger returned to haunt Portugal shortly into the second half.

Jermaine Jones – who had worked assiduously to win the midfield battle – picked up the ball on the edge of penalty area, easily knocked the ball past Nani, who had initially failed to clear with his head, and crashed a wonderful curling shot into the corner.

Fifteen minutes later, and the United States had completed the turnaround. A spell of possession resulted in an attack down the right flank, with the ball eventually arriving at Clint Dempsey who leaned to chest home and spark wild celebrations on the touchline.

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Ultimately the game finished in similar fashion to the USA’s opener – a late goal, only this time they were on the wrong end of it as Varela pounced at the death.

Upon the final whistle in Manaus, Ronaldo ripped off his captain’s armband and stormed down the tunnel to suggest his side’s World Cup hopes were over. But the Brazil finals have already thrown up enough surprises – no one’s fate is certain in Group G.

Portugal need to beat Ghana in their final match and hope that Germany aid their pursuit of a five-goal swing with a healthy victory over the USA. It’s not that inconceivable at all.

Ghana’s progression scenario is similar and, although their goal difference is superior to Portugal, would still benefit from a tidy Germany victory – although a comprehensive USA victory could also send them through.

Germany need a draw to top the group and secure a favourable last-16 tie with Algeria, Russia or South Korea, while the same result would guarantee the USA a spot in the knockout stages. Victory would send them through as group winners.

With the arrival of simultaneous kick-offs, the Group G conclusion will have the added element of the sides reacting to the other game. Given the madness of the World Cup, it seems inevitable that the Group of Death will conjure up one final twist to conclude the Pepe, Ayew, Brooks and Varela narrative.

June 26 is set to be very exciting indeed.

Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball

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