Algeria, Belgium, Russia and South Korea will battle it out for two spots in the Round of 16 as Group H kicks off on the 17th of June. Belgium are the favorites to top the group, with the other three expected to fight it out for second place.
The Red Devils are fifth favorites for the cup ahead of former winners like Italy and France, which is astounding considering that they hadn’t even qualified for the last World Cup or even the European Championships in 2012 for that matter.
Russia under Fabio Capello will want to upset the tide. But rumors are that the side is merely being prepared for the 2018 tournament which will be held in Russia of course. After a spectacular European Championship campaign in 2008, Russia haven’t quite built on that success; failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and flopping in Euro 2012 despite a strong start.
Algeria are Africa’s highest ranked team, but have gotten little attention, perhaps due to a lack of star names. But the Algerians can boast some very talented young players like Faouzi Ghoulam, Nabil Bentaleb and in particular Sofiane Feghouli, while the wily captain Madjid Boughera will lead the team.
After a splendid run in 2002, South Korea have failed to qualify from of the group stages in the last two editions. The Koreans have talents like Son Heung-Min and Ji Dong-Won who are capable of splitting defenses open, while the service will depend largely on Swansea City’s Ki Sung-Yueng.
Belgium have a wealth of top class attackers in their team. The likes of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku are among the best in European football, but will have to do without Christian Benteke, who would probably have gotten the nod over Lukaku.
Defensively they can count on a wealth of talent in the center-back position, with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen. But therein lies Belgium’s biggest problem; a serious lack of quality full-backs in the squad.
You wouldn’t expect a team that’s fifth favorites coming into the World Cup to start with four center-backs. Maybe that will not affect them too much against weaker oppositions, and one must concede that they are better than all their opponents in Group H, but it could prove a sizable obstacle when they get to the latter stages.
Russia, like every team that Capello has managed, are disciplined, organised and difficult to break down. However, the loss of captain and talisman Roman Shirokov will leave a huge impact on the Russians.
The wonderfully gifted Alan Dzagoev will probably be limited to substitute appearances as his lack of discipline when Russia are out of possession is against the Capello blueprint. The more disciplined, but slightly less talented Oleg Shatov of Zenit will in all probability come in for the captain Shirokov.
Viktor Fayzulin and Igor Denisov will in all probability complete the midfield trio. Their key player in the absence of Shirokov will be the inside forward Alexander Kokorin. The 23-year-old has a good eye for goal and can also play on as a center-forward with Yuri Zherkov starting on the left, but Capello is expected to start the selfless Alexander Kerzhakov, with the Dynamo Moscow player expected to cut in from the left onto his right foot.
Algeria play an aggresive pressing game in a 4-3-3 formation lead by their centre forward Islam Slimani. Slimani’s career started in the 5th division of Algerian football, but his meteoric rise means he is now a star of Sporting Lisbon in Portugal and is reportedly a target of Crystal Palace.
On Slimani’s right is Al Arabi Soudani, who is more of a striker and will probably join Slimani in the box for crosses. One the left is Valencia’s Sofiane Fegthouli. Possibly Algeria’s best player, Feghouli is responsible for playing the number 10 role, getting between the lines and playing in Slimani or Soudani.
Faouzi Ghoulam and Nabil Bentaleb are also emerging talents in this Algeria side, with Madjid Boughera leading an exciting team that could possibly cause an upset and qualify from the group.
Speaking of South Korea’s historic run to the semifinals in 2002 on home soil, their superb skipper sweeper, Hyong Meung-Bo, is in charge of the national team for this World Cup.
And he’s scrapped the long ball football they played under the previous regime, turning to a much more attractive counterattacking game, with quick and skillful wingers down the flanks.
Those two wingers will in all likelihood be Heung Min Son on the left and Lee Chu Young on the right. Son is an established name now in the Bundesliga, with sterling performances first with Hamburg earning him a move to Bayer Leverkusen, where his stock has increased even more. Meanwhile, Lee Chu Young is a skilled dribbler and will help their attack transitions to be executed smoothly.
These two wide men are emblematic of their side, who play with lightning quick transitions. They’re very tectonic, and it’s no wonder why the likes of Son has been such a success in the Bundesliga.
Defensively Korea are still very organised, even though you wouldn’t believe that if you watched their friendly against Ghana, although that was an exception to the rule.
Belgium should top the group, because even though there is potential in their group competitors, there’s a feel that these teams are all at the start of a transition, much like Belgium were in 1998.