Not the most fashionable of World Cup quartets, Group H still has plenty to offer. Mix in a tournament dark horse ready to light this tournament on fire along with two teams aiming to re-establish themselves on the global stage, sprinkled in with an outsider capable of a surprise and the result is a possibly terrific section.
Belgium are this year’s dark horses. With a vibrant side made up of some of European football’s best young talent, the sky is the limit.
Russia and South Korea will be fighting for a place in the next round. Their match-up on 17th June could set the tone for the whole group. The Russians are looking confident under the guidance of Fabio Capello. South Korea will have belief as well especially after going to the Round of 16 four years ago in South Africa.
Algeria are real outsiders and expected to lose all three matches they play. They are a team who is growing in experience though and can now point to several players in some of Europe’s best teams.
There is no Brazil, Spain, Germany or Argentina, but that is why this section could be exciting. There will be a wide open feel to it as no team will feel unable to beat another. And as far as surprises go, perhaps one of the tournament’s shock runs will end up being produced by a team from this group.
Algeria are making their fourth trip to the World Cup finals with the team’s overall goal continuing to be a place out of the group stage. Their best effort was in 1982 when they just missed out on the knockout round. They performed admirably four years ago and were by no means embarrassed by the likes of England, USA and Slovenia, though they were bounced out once again after three matches.
The suggestions this time are that they are set to suffer that same fate in a group that looks beyond them. The Fennec Foxes topped a straightforward qualifying section that included Mali, Benin and Rwanda before squeaking past Burkina Faso on away goals.
While not many are giving Vahid Halilhodzic’s team much of a chance, it isn’t all doom and gloom for Algeria. Even if the main achievement of qualifying for the World Cup has been reached, there is a feeling that with the astute Halilhodzic at the helm there could be hope to spring a surprise. One look at the squad sees players representing clubs such as Inter Milan, Valencia, Tottenham, Porto, Sporting Lisbon, Napoli and Udinese. There is quality within the ranks and if they are overlooked then there is no doubt they could pick up points in this group.
Team captain Madjid Bougherra is the heart and soul of this side. The Lekhwiya defender is one of the elder statesmen of a young team. Bougherra scored the vital winner against Burkina Faso in the second leg of their playoff tie to send his squad to Brazil. Before making the move to Qatar, Bougherra was part of three Scottish Premier League title wins with Rangers.
Some of Algeria’s best attacking options are found on the flanks. The French-born Sofiane Feghouli is a Valencia winger who can do some serious damage on the right side and has been a fixture for the Spanish club in the last four seasons.
In midfield, Saphir Taider is one of the team’s rising stars. The 22-year-old signed for Inter Milan at the beginning of the 2013/14 campaign after two fine seasons with Bologna. The speedy, hard-working Taider chipped in with a couple of goals in qualifying.
Reigning Algerian Player of the Year Islam Slimani will be the man charged with scoring the goals for Algeria during the World Cup. The Sporting Lisbon striker has enjoyed a strong first season in Portugal with eight goals in 20 appearances. For his country he has been even better with nine goals in his first eighteen matches. Slimani is in great form heading into this tournament and could be a player that has a breakthrough moment in Brazil.
Coach profile – Vahid Halilhodzic
The Bosnian-born Vahid Halilhodzic was appointed to the Algerian helm in 2011. Going to the World Cup represents something of a reward for the 61-year-old manager who was unceremoniously dumped by Ivory Coast before the 2010 World Cup after leading the team through the qualifiers. A former player, Halilhodzic is a well-respected manager who has vast experience across eight different countries. He is known as a disciplinarian and is not afraid to make big decisions as he did when leaving Karim Ziani out of the Algeria squad shortly after taking over.
Expectations and prediction
Algeria will go out easy after three matches. That is what the experts say and the reality is probably close to that. However, there is more to this team than meets the eye. With a host of players plying their trade in Europe’s best leagues and a good mix of youth and experience, there is a belief that if overlooked there could be problems for the likes of Belgium, Russia and South Korea. Halilhodzic’s fiery resolve could inspire this team to more than what many believe possible. Will they make it out of Group H? The answer is probably not, but don’t expect thrashings either. As they showed in 2010, Algeria are not whipping boys and will give a good account of themselves in Brazil as well.
Algeria v Belgium (17th June, Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte)
Algeria v South Korea (22nd June, Estadio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre)
Algeria v Russia (26th June, Arena da Baixada, Curitiba)
Twelve years after their last appearance at the World Cup, Belgium return to football’s grandest stage at the 2014 World Cup. Belgium’s best-ever finish in the competition was a spot in the semi-finals in 1986. Many observers feel that the team have a shot at least in coming close to that achievement this time around.
The reason for this is the coming together of a golden generation of talented young players. This is a squad that is full of youth, but that have tremendous quality and a real hunger for success. The Belgians waltzed through a tough looking qualifying group, finishing first in UEFA’s Group A ahead of Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales, and Macedonia. Their positive form in recent years saw them receive a top seed for the World Cup draw and the group they have been dealt may not be easy, but most observers believe it is very manageable for Marc Wilmots’ side.
There may be enormous potential here, though the flip side is that this team have never experienced this sort of pressure yet. Will they rise to the occasion? Or will the big expectations weigh too heavily on their collective shoulders? Regardless of what happens, they represent one of the more intriguing sides in the tournament and their matches will be followed with real interest.
The most gifted individual of a talented bunch may indeed be Eden Hazard. The Chelsea star enjoyed a fine season with his club, leading the team in goals and assists from his usual wide position. His ability on the ball, his movement and a keen eye for goal are some of the reasons he is tabbed to be football’s next great superstar in the company of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The focal point of the team’s attack will be another Chelsea player, Romelu Lukaku. The big striker has yet to shine for the Blues who have preferred to send him on loan to get experience. The last two seasons have seen him go to West Bromwich Albion and Everton in year-long loan deals and he has been a key player for those teams. He can score and be a physical presence in the box, but his link-up play with team-mates is also an important part of his game.
Vincent Kompany’s leadership will be crucial for Belgium at the World Cup. In a young team, the battle-hardened Kompany will be looked at to provide experience. The Manchester City centre-back is viewed as one of the top defenders in world football and despite a couple of high-profile errors he was superb in leading Manchester City to this season’s Premier League title.
Even in goal Belgium have a plethora of riches. The dilemma is one any coach would want in trying to pick between the superb youngster Thibaut Courtois or Liverpool’s in-form goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Coach profile – Marc Wilmots
Marc Wilmots is a former Belgian international and assistant coach of the team who took over the national side in May 2012. His initial success with the team has seen him have his contract extended through to the 2018 World Cup. Some believe that the talent within the side has overshadowed his managerial shortcomings, but for the most part he has been praised for his work with this talented group. His work with Belgium is all the more impressive as his previous coaching jobs at Schalke and St. Truiden were not viewed as particularly successful.
Expectations and prediction
Teams like this have flopped on the world stage before, succumbing to the pressure of the World Cup. There is the fear that this could happen to Belgium, but more likely is that this team shine in Brazil. Belgium have quality in every line on the pitch. There is creativity throughout the team, but also a strong backline. Wilmots has handled the youngsters well and they have responded in kind. Russia, South Korea and Algeria are the sort of opposition this team should be able to handle, though questions remain as to whether they can beat the big boys. They will have a chance should they advance past the group stage and few teams will want to play this up-and-coming side. A quarter-final berth is not out of the realm of possibility.
Belgium v Algeria (17th June, Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte)
Belgium v Russia (22nd June, Estadio do Maracana, Rio de Janeiro)
Belgium v South Korea (26th June, Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo)
Russia will find themselves at the World Cup for the first time in twelve years. Fabio Capello’s team are back after navigating a qualifying group that included Portugal. The Russians outlasted their Portuguese counterparts to grab first place in Group F by a single point.
Two 1-0 losses to Portugal and Northern Ireland halfway through their campaign seemed to derail Russia’s bid to qualify, but they rebounded from those defeats to secure three straight wins to clinch a spot in Brazil. The Russians were more compact under Capello as they conceded only five goals in their ten qualifiers. This formed a solid base and there was plenty of attacking quality to ensure the goals were there to pick up points.
This is a team that can play good football, the test is whether they can grind out results when need be. They did show this trait in their qualifying matches, but recent history suggests they still need to convince. A 4-1 win over the Czech Republic in their opener at Euro 2012 was broadly acclaimed and there was widespread belief that Russia would feature prominently in the latter stages of that competition. However, they were unable to hold on to the win against Poland in their next match and were stunned to go out when they were beaten by Greece in their last fixture. There won’t be any celebrating this time around until a spot in the next round is clinched.
Russia’s defensive record was helped in large part to the performances of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. The CSKA Moscow player and 2013 Russian Premier League Footballer of the Year was in great form. On the books at CSKA since the age of five, Akinfeev, now 28, is in the prime of his career.
CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev is an emerging influence for both club and country. The 23-year-old is Russia’s number ten, a key playmaker for this side with his passing and clever overall play. The scorer of three goals at Euro 2012, supporters will be hoping for a similar impact at the 2014 World Cup.
The most reliable scorer for this team remains Alexander Kerzhakov. The Zenit striker has 25 international goals, needing only one more to break his country’s all-time record. At 31, this could be his last tournament, but he showed in qualifying with his four goals that he is still a major part of this team.
Coach profile – Fabio Capello
Fabio Capello is a world-renown manager who has captured no less than thirteen titles with the likes of AC Milan, Roma and Real Madrid. He took on the Russia job in July 2012 still with something to prove. He qualified England for Euro 2012, but quit before the tournament as he protested the FA’s decision to strip John Terry of the captaincy. His reputation took a little bit of a hit in some quarters, while the flip side was that he was lauded for standing up for what he believed in. And the Italian boss is certainly a strong personality who doesn’t mince his words. He is contracted to this team through the end of the 2018 World Cup as Russia hope to make a big impact on the coming World Cup and the next one which they will host.
Expectations and prediction
Russia will fancy the group they have been drawn in as they look to advance to the knockout round of the tournament for the first time since they were the USSR. This isn’t a spectacular side, but there is balance. While no squad members ply their trade abroad there is little worry about all players being based domestically as the Russian game has improved in recent years thanks to a large influx of money. They will be expected to go through and that perhaps will be the greatest concern in this group. Whether or not they can deal with that pressure will be the key to advancing. With a coach the calibre of Capello that can only improve their chances and Russia should be favourites to pick up at least second place.
Russia v South Korea (17th June, Arena Pantanal, Cuiaba)
Russia v Belgium (22nd June, Estadio do Maracana, Rio de Janeiro)
Russia v Algeria (26th June, Arena da Baixada, Curitiba)
After experiencing great improvement over the last 20 years, South Korea have now come to a crossroads. Their participation at the 2014 World Cup will be their seventh consecutive at the world’s biggest sporting event. And last time around there was relative success with a place in the Round of 16. That should be cause for excitement, but the team’s underwhelming qualifying run left something to be desired.
Choi Kang-Hee was given the sack during the qualifiers and former star Hong Myung-Bo was installed. The results improved though the Taeguk Warriors still needed late goals against Qatar and Lebanon to salvage their campaign. The change in leadership may have helped matters to inch over the finish line to qualification, but now there are lingering issues.
Myung-Bo is trying to bring in younger players to freshen up this team and whether that will affect the cohesiveness within the ranks remains to be seen. Despite the difficulties of the last year, this team continue to be one of the best and most talented Asian sides. They also have experience in this tournament and after advancing out of the group stage last time out there is the confidence to do so again.
Though he was never able to break into the Arsenal side for a consistent run, Park Chu-Young was always an important part of the national side. He has a good strike rate for his country with 24 goals in 62 appearances. Six goals in qualifying only enhanced his standing showing once again he has a penchant for scoring crucial goals.
Also vying for a starting place in the line-up will be Son Heung-Min. The 21-year-old Bayer Leverkusen striker is an aggressive finisher who has pace, agility and a powerful shot. He enjoyed a fine first season with Leverkusen with twelve goals and seven assists.
The centre-back pairing is very solid. The duo of Kim Young-Gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande) and Hong Jeong-Ho (Augsburg) is the contributing factor to this being a side difficult to score against. Finally, in midfield another duo run the show. The partnership known as “Koo-Ki” is responsible for marshalling the centre of the park. Mainz’s Koo Ja-Cheol and Swansea’s Ki Sung-Yeung make up the twosome, both being capable scorers and coming off decent club seasons, Sung-Yeung impressing on loan at Sunderland.
Coach profile – Hong Myung-Bo
Hong Myung-Bo was one of the best South Korean players in history. His 136 appearances make him the most-capped player of all-time as the Seoul-born Myung-Bo led his nation to four World Cups. Having taken up the managerial reins in 2009 he climbed up through the national team system to be appointed as senior boss in June 2013. He previously coached the country’s Under-20 side for one year and the Under-23s for three years, leading the latter to the bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. He has changed the team’s style from a direct game to a more expansive approach and has been seen as a positive influence since taking the job.
Expectations and prediction
South Korea will have their eyes firmly set on a place in the Round of 16. Whether their new manager can meld together this unit in time for the World Cup is a big question, but the initial signs are promising. There is undoubtedly a lot of young talent in this squad, but mixed performances in qualifiers and recent friendlies show some inconsistency.
What may ultimately lead to their undoing is difficulty in breaking down the top teams. The key game for South Korea is certainly the opener against Russia is Cuiaba. That result could determine second place in Group H. Russia’s consistency and stability may see them just eke out a place ahead of the Koreans this time around.
South Korea v Russia (17th June, Arena Pantanal, Cuiaba)
South Korea v Algeria (22nd June, Estadio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre)
South Korea v Belgium (26th June Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo)