World Cup preview – Group H
In our final preview of this year’s World Cup, we look at a group featuring the neutral’s choice for the tournament. Are they as good as people think they are, and can the rest cause an upset?
A set of recognisable stars at the top of their games, a nation absent from the past two competitions, and a weight of expectation from the footballing world to bear. With the most talented group of players since their 1986 4th place finish, Belgium has an excellent opportunity in Brazil to write a new chapter in their footballing history. Indeed many are suggesting this set of players has the potential to equal if not better the accomplishments 28 years ago. Only 6 of the squad were alive for that – and only the 36-year-old Van Buyten old enough to have any memory. This is a youthful side, packed full of current Premiership stars, and on paper they could go far .
Though Christian Benteke misses out through injury, coach Marc Wilmots can call on two players that had excellent seasons for Everton in Lukaku and Mirallas. Eden Hazard has the chance to stick it to Jose Mourinho with an impressive tournament, while at the back Vertonghen, Vermaelen and captain Kompany are on their day 3 of the best defenders currently in the Premier League. They conceded just 4 goals in an unbeaten qualifying campaign – expectations are justifiably high for their prospects in Brazil.
Prediction: 1st, showing the hype is justified and not simply the Belgian waffle of pundits. This is one set of Red Devils that won’t disappoint this year.
It’s been a rocky couple of years for Algeria. A poor display at the Cup of Nations saw them fall at the first hurdle, despite being among one of the favourites to win it. After topping their group in qualifying for Brazil, it took two feisty playoff games with Burkina Faso to confirm their spot in the finals. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic was supposed to have been in South Africa 4 years ago after steering the Ivory Coast through qualifying, but was sacked 4 months before the tournament started after disappointment in the Cup of Nations – where they were eliminated by Algeria. In contrast to most of the other teams in Brazil, Algeria opted not to test themselves against other teams competing in the finals, instead picking up 3 wins in friendlies against Slovenia, Armenia and Romania.
England fans will remember Algeria’s 0-0 draw in South Africa as one of the all-time lows in Capello’s time as coach, and there are a few that remain involved from that squad – notably Rafik Halliche and former Crewe and Rangers centre-half Madjid Bougherra, while Getafe’s Lacen and Udinese’s Yebda remain in the midfield. In Sporting Lisbon Slimani and Dinamo Zagreb striker Soudani they pack a stronger punch than the timid side 4 years ago, and in Valencia winger Feghouli a player that can create from the right. Look out also for Nabil Bentaleb, who following his rise at Spurs in the 2nd half of the season was fast-tracked into the Algerian side, only making his debut in the Slovenia friendly and scoring the opener against Romania.
Prediction: an improvement on their experience in South Africa and a 3rd place finish.
4 years ago Fabio Capello led an England team through a very successful qualifying campaign before guiding them to a lacklustre set of games in the finals. Part 1 of that story has been replicated with Russia, as they powered through to top their group, forcing Portugal into a playoff. There was a bump along the way (the inexplicable 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland) but by all accounts this is a Russian side that arrives in Brazil with expectations of reaching the knockout stages. This despite a fairly dismal World Cup record of late – this is only their 3rd appearance at the finals since the break up of the Soviet Union, and their 1st since 2002. Their last appearance past the group stages was back when Belgium finished 4th.
In contrast to Russian teams of previous coaches, Capello has decided to go with 23 players that are all domestically based – not one is currently playing abroad. Former regulars like Andrei Arshavin have been moved on. At the back, experienced CSKA Moscow duo Ignashevich and Berezutski have 176 caps between them and helped guide the side to concede just 5 goals in qualifying, aided in no small part by keeper Igor Akinfeev. Former Chelsea flop and midfield workaholic Yuri Zhirkov is still involved, scoring a spectacular volley against Morocco in their final warm-up game, while experienced Zenit St Petersburg striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov features up front.
Prediction: A 2nd place finish was disappointing for Capello 4 years ago, but he’ll be delighted with this in Brazil.
In contrast to the Russians, South Korea has a pretty decent record at recent World Cups, notably their 4th place finish when hosting in 2002. But a number of questions surround a squad that struggled at times in qualifying, narrowly scraping past Uzbekistan to claim a place behind Iran for the finals. As a result of this unconvincing display, they will have a new coach guiding the team in the finals – Hong Myung-Bo, who captained the 2002 team. Though he’s said to have instilled more confidence, recent results would suggest otherwise as 4-0 thumpings from a poor Mexico side and most recently Ghana bookend their 6 matches so far in 2014.
If they are to survive past the group stages, they will be reliant on Kim Young-Gwon to marshall the defence, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung Min to create from midfield. Roughly half of the team were part of the successful bronze medal team at the London Olympics. This includes striker Park Chu-Young, who despite being South Korea’s leading goalscorer in the squad had a torrid time at the Emirates as he failed to break through into Arsene Wenger’s side.
Korearing out of Brazil in 4th place.