Group-H: in this edition of the World Cup looks to be one of the more balanced sections with two European teams in Belgium and Russia – the two slight favourites pitted against an unpredictable South Korea and Algeria, a side that is in transition.
Belgium will kick off as the favorites to top the group with the side entering its so called ‘golden generation’. They boast some of the most exciting players in their ranks with several of their players plying their trade in the Premier League in Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany and the like. Marc Wilmots has got quite a few enviable attacking options to choose from and much depends on how he utilizes Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to make sure the team gets on the scoreboard. He prefers a 4-2-3-1 on paper with Lukaku leading the line. The Red Devils boast a strong midfield as well, with the versatile Axel Vitsel dictating the play partnering Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard will start on the left side of midfield alongside other creative youngsters in Nacer Chadli and Kevin De Bruyne completing the three-men line in front of the midfield pivot. Belgium go into the tournament with an able back four that includes Manchester City’s skipper Vincent Kompany who would lead the Red Devils in Brazil alongside Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are the two fullbacks. That’s a stout, experienced back line. But, it’s also four natural central defenders. Quick players down the wings could trouble them. Thibaut Courtois will stand in goal who has already made his mark in Spain and Europe with his match-saving performances.
Having played 11 editions already, Belgium are the most experienced World Cup side in this group. Only two players are over 28 in the 23-man squad, but these names in the current edition have little track record of playing well in the national team shirt and playing well together. If they can do that, Belgium can quite comfortably top this group and advance further.
Man to Watch – Eden Hazard
Korea Republic reached the World Cup Semi-finals at home in 2002, then they returned to the knock-out round in 2010. Their 2014 campaign will be about making this a regular thing. Hong Myung-Bo, one of the greatest Asian footballers of all-time is the head coach of Korea Republic. As captain in 2002, he led the team to the semi-final and was awarded the Bronze Ball. Notably, he has led the side from the dugout to a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. Korea Republic normally play a rigid 4-2-3-1 at full strength with players maintaining the shape and trying to hit the opponents on the counter with pace. Their opening game against Russia would perhaps decide their fate as one of the two teams are widely expected to finish runners-up in the group.
Hong Myung-Bo has a young squad at his disposal. Heung-Min Son of Leverkusen is the most exciting player in the squad and he would be my player to watch for in this South Korean team. Comfortable with both feet, Son could potentially turn the game around with his ability to turn on a six pence. The South Koreans though do not have a deadly strike force to get the goals as Park Chu-Young, a projected starter has basically not played since arriving at Arsenal in 2011. And the South Koreans will have to tighten the back four as they visibly struggled to defend set-pieces in the qualifiers.
The South Koreans have reached the knockout stages at two of the past three tournaments. That’s two more times than the other three group members combined over that span. Quite simply, they can beat any team and lose to any in this group, which is why I would call them the most unpredictable team in this group.
Man to Watch – Son Heung-Min
The Soviet Union was a footballing powerhouse, while the Russian federation has been anything but. Since the separation, they have qualified for just three World Cup finals which is underwhelming to say the least. Euro 2008 was the only time the Russian’s got past a group stage. The hosts of the 2018 World Cup will look to advance and make a mark in Brazil, ahead of the next edition to be held in their own backyard.
Russia is managed by the well-known Fabio Capello, one of the greatest managers in club football. His previous stint with England was rather dull as three lions failed to beat Algeria and USA in the group stage, eventually losing to Germany in the round of 16. He has basically used a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in the qualifiers, depending on how you group the midfielders. This team is well-organized, defensive and presses high up the pitch. The entire 23-man squad is based in Russia, which means fresher legs than most, after a three-month break from December to February and fewer matches played. Andrey Arshavin is the one notable omission in Fabio Capello’s final 23-man squad, something that raised a few eyebrows.
Alan Dzagoev is my player to watch in the Russian team. The 23-year-old CSKA Moscow attacking midfielder has a flair for scoring goals (3 at Euro 2012) as well as getting himself unnecessarily sent-off. Every meaningful Russian attack goes through him and he should play a pivotal role in their 2014 World Cup campaign, be it good or worse. Igor Akinfeev is one of world’s standout goalkeepers. He is fronted by his CSKA club teammates Sergei Ignasevich and Vasili Berezutski. The trio have been playing together for club and country for almost a decade. They boast an experienced midfield as well with Dzagoev playing behind the lead striker. There’s still some question whether that will be the veteran Alexandr Kerzhakov or young starlet Alexander Kokorin. Capello could play both in a 4-4-2 or play Kokorin on the wing.
Having not performed well in the previous international tournaments the Russians will be looking to book their place in the knockouts and restore their reputation ahead of the next edition of this showpiece event.
Man to Watch – Alan Dzagoev
The desert foxes have participated in three previous editions, but the first in 1982 was the most heartbreaking. Algeria won two of their three group matches, including a shocking defeat of the Germans. But the Germans and Austrians conspired for a 1-0 Germany win which sent both of them to the knockout round and Algerians home on goal difference.
Vahid Halilhodzic is the head coach of Algeria. The 61-year-old Bosnian native has managed multiple clubs, mostly in France, with his last international spell coaching the Ivory Coast. He prefers a flexible 4-1-4-1 formation which they have been used to in the qualifying rounds. Sofiane Feghouli would be my player to watch for in the current Algerian side. The French-born 24-year-old winger switched registrations in 2011. Plying his club trade at Valencia, he has great pace and technique and can be a threat from multiple positions in the attacking phase. Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb has been working his way into the team and this could be a huge tournament for him, on a personal level. Captain and defender Madjid Bougherra is the only player older than 30 and the only one with more than 30 caps.
The next step for Algerian soccer is to reach the knockout round. That will be a tough ask of them as Belgium and Russia are two very solid European outfits to compete against. South Korea has reached at least the knockout round at two of the last three World Cups. There’s a reason why Algeria are one of the tournament’s biggest underdogs.
Man to Watch – Sofiane Feghouli
Prediction : Belgium and South Korea to go through.