Almost the forgotten group of the tournament, not much is expected of Group H. With alleged dark horses but actual fifth favourites Belgium, and three unknown quantities, all capable of progressing from the group.
Formerly 500/1 shots from the tournament, the restless Belgian talent machine has propelled Marc Wilmots’ side into one of the tournament favourites. Having grown up together, progressing through the ranks as one, Belgium’s golden generation are a tight bunch who are confident of flourishing this summer. Impressive in qualifying with eight wins and two draws from 10, the Belgian defence was second to only Spain’s, keeping six clean sheets. Expect them to line up in a 4-3-3, with centre-backs at full-back andThibaut Courtois in goal.
Further forward, Eden Hazard will be hoping to take some of the limelight away from talisman Kevin De Bruyne and fire the Red Devils to glory. Courtois will have his eyes on the golden glove, and should he match his club form, will be hard to beat in the running for the award. Tactically flexible, often mixing between a 4-3-3 and 4-3-2-1, Wilmots likes to use three powerhouses in midfield, in the shape of Steven Defour, Axel Witsel and the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini, who will want to show Man United fans what he is capable of. Lack of experience in the squad is an issue, with only Daniel van Buyten (the squads top scorer!) having previous World Cup experience. The draw has been kind to them, handing the team little distance to travel, the longest flight lasting just 35 minutes, while all their games will be contested in the cool south of Brazil. Likely to qualify from the group without any trouble, a tricky last 16 tie against (presumably) one of Germany or Portugal beckons. Should they win that, they will expect to meet Argentina in the last eight, making it hard to see the revolutionised team making any real impression on the latter stages of the tournament.
Impressively beating Portugal to top of their group in qualifying, the ageing Russian squad will be determined to set the record straight after their dismal showings at the last two World Cups, as well as a below-par performance at Euro 2012. Manager Fabio Capello has transformed a once egoistic, individual-centred squad into a united, hardworking outfit that play for each other. Lining up in a 4-3-3, the loss of captain Roman Shirokov is a big blow for Capello, while centre-halves Sergey Ignashevic and Alexsei Berezutskli are extremely susceptible to pace, as demonstrated by group rivals South Korea in a recent friendly.
Tournament favourite Alan Dzagoev has somewhat lost his way since Euro 2012, however the emergence of Aleksandr Kokorin up front has given Russians reason to be hopeful this summer. Not as strong as they have been in previous tournaments, the Russians are certainly fallible here. A last-16 exit is probable to be the best they can hope for, given their likely opponents in the next round should they qualify, which in itself is not a given.
Participating in their eighth successive World Cup finals, South Korea are a well known entity at this stage. Coach Hong Myung Bo has restored the pace, power and precision the Koreans are known for after his predecessor Choi Kang Hee implemented an unsuccessful long ball policy. Fortunate to qualify, having to rely on other results falling in their favour, the Koreans will look to impose their youthful vibrancy on their group rivals. The well known Heung Min Son and Chung Yong Lee will line up on either side of a 4-2-3-1 system, while the onus will be on Ki Sung Yeung to pull the strings in midfield.
The squad contains a fine blend of both experience and youth which gives the Koreans reason to be optimistic. Defensively, they are as weak as ever, keeping just six clean sheets since the last World Cup. The second team to be nicknamed The Red Devils in the group, they will be hoping to make it four winning openers out of four when they square up with Russia on Matchday 1 and assert themselves as the Top Red Devils in international football. More than capable of reaching the next round, performances in games with Russia and Algeria will be decisive, should they progress. However, like Russia, it’s difficult to see them making it any further, given the draw.
Last, but not least, is Algeria. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic was reduced to tears after qualification was secured, the Bosnian leading his side to five out wins out of their six group games, as well as a victory over Burkina Faso in qualifying. The Algerian fans, who filled the stadium six hours before their play-off, will have been ecstatic with the draw, and will be quietly confident of their chances of reaching the next round. Their game has progressed significantly since four years ago when they were heavily criticized and labelled the most dour team in the tournament after their defensive displays and petty time-wasting.
With a recruitment policy not dissimilar to that employed by Jack Charlton’s Ireland, Halilhodzic has raided Europe looking for youngsters of Algerian descent, with Spurs youngster Nabil Bentaleb being the latest recruit. Operating in a balanced 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the Algerians are defensively organized but like to press high to win back possession. The front three of Sofiane Feghouli, El Arabi Hillel Soudani and Islam Slimani share an impressive understanding and are highly proficient at drawing the best from one another while in midfield, Saphir Taider and Faouzi Ghoulam will be expected to keep things on a leash, and propel the team forward when necessary. The back four will be a concern for The Fennec Foxes, with the team lacking understanding and chemistry, as well as being vulnerable to the odd clanger. Although unfancied by the bookmakers, I feel the Algerians are a big threat in this group – though unlikely to trouble Belgium for top spot, second is well within their grasp, and the squad will fancy their chances of reaching the second round.