World Cup Group H Preview
By Isa Sulayman
Though not the most scintillating on paper, Group H is still pretty open with all participants believing they have a conceivable chance of progression. Belgium and their self-styled ‘golden generation’ have been the talk of international football for a couple of years now and are understandably fancied to make something of a statement in Brazil this summer. Their advancement through this group shouldn’t be taken for granted though as they will have to vie with a very solid Russian side, a South Korea with a good recent record in this tournament and Algeria who themselves have one of their strongest teams in decades.
Never has the ‘dark-horse’ tag been so unanimously attributed to one team as it has with this Belgium team. In fact, they are so widely considered genuine contenders that BBC presenter Gary Lineker remarked that they cannot even be considered dark-horses anymore. The reason for the sudden hype surrounding them is down to an extremely talented crop of players who have come through and flourished over the previous few years transforming them from general also-rans to possessing a squad the envy of many other nations.
The quality they can boast throughout the team really is remarkable it has to be said. Despite only recently turning 22, Thibaut Courtois is already recognised as one of the best goalkeepers in the world after playing his part in the extraordinary rise of Diego Simeone’s inspirational Atlético Madrid side. Finding himself in the strange position of skippering both the Red Devils (the nickname of the Belgian national team) as well as the team in the blue half of Manchester is the immense Vincent Kompany. Anchoring midfield is £32m man Axel Witsel who does a brilliant job of both protecting the defence and redistributing the ball. Newly crowned PFA Young Player of the Year Eden Hazard heads an awesome array of attacking-midfield options. The Chelsea star arrives off the back of a sensational season with Chelsea in which he notched up eighteen goals and ten assists in all competitions and will be looked upon to continue such form if Belgium wish to mount a serious challenge here. And Wilmots’ options in this department were bolstered further when teenage prodigy Adnan Januzaj finally made his mind up and declared for Belgium.
Sadly a horrendous achilles injury suffered in training forced Aston Villa hero Christian Benteke to miss out on the tournament but luckily for Belgium they were able to turn to that other young striker of Congolese descent – Romelu Lukaku – who himself has mustered an impressive strike-rate over the last couple of seasons and with seven goals in his last five international starts, he has started to show signs that he is worthy of leading the line at international level also. With twelve players, Belgium are only second to England themselves in terms of Premier League representation.
Despite all of this, there does remain a question-mark over Belgium’s inexperience at this level with this being the first international tournament they have qualified for since 2002. Manager Marc Wilmots, who scored three goals as Belgium made it to the last 16 back then, will also be venturing into the unknown with this being his first major managerial job and this could well be severely exposed when Belgium come up against top opposition, if not sooner.
Four years after overseeing what was a pretty shambolic World Cup campaign with England, Fabio Capello returns, this time as manager of Russia. No doubt on a personal level he’ll be seeking some redemption for one of the few black-marks on an otherwise illustrious managerial career but Russia as a nation will also be expecting an encouraging performance from their team to take forward as they start to look towards the 2018 World Cup which they will host.
Though unspectacular, the Russians still constitute tough opponents for any side. As is evident by the fact that they edged Portugal to top-spot in their qualifying group. Key to this success is the continuity of their spine which Capello has been careful not to disturb. This is best illustrated at the back with Igor Akinfeev in goal and the long-time central-defensive partnership of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, ahead of him. All three hail from CSKA Moscow, where they have played together for more than a decade and between them they have amassed an incredible 244 caps for the national team. Not to mention the reliable Igor Denisov shielding them from midfield and it is this base that Capello has utilised to make Russia an extremely difficult team to beat, as you’d expect from the Italian.
At the other end of the pitch, their top-scorer in qualifying Aleksandr Kerzhakov will be looked to as the obvious goal-threat but there is also young striker Aleksandr Kokorin who it is hoped can step up after an impressive season with both club and country.
Russia did however suffer a huge blow with captain Roman Shirokov ruled out through injury. The FC Krasnodar playmaker provided a vital creative and goalscoring outlet from midfield. With Alan Dzagoev, the only other player in the squad who is capable of providing similar, seldom used by Capello this could prove to be a problem for them at some stage.
The 2002 co-hosts don’t come to Brazil with any great momentum after losing four of their last five games and failing to score in any of those losses. They also find themselves in the rare situation of having a different manager to the one who led them through qualifying, after Choi Kang-Hee was dismissed following a underwhelming showing in the final qualifying group in which they just sneaked second place via goal difference at the expense of Uzbekistan. In a bold move by the South Korean FA, he was succeeded by 136-cap legend Hong Myung-Bo.
The Taegeuk Warriors will know though that it is your form during the tournament that matters and with a good core of players plying their trade in Europe, they know that they have the quality to do more than simply just make up the numbers.
Villa fans saw first hand what Ki Sung-Yueng is capable of when he was one of the few shining lights in an otherwise drab goalless draw at Villa Park. A performance reflective of his importance to Sunderland this season as Gus Poyet eventually led them to somewhat of a miraculous escape. In Bolton’s Lee Chung-Yong they have someone who can provide that bit of skill and end-product but the biggest share of the nation’s hope will rest on Son Heung-Min. The Leverkusen wide-forward has enjoyed an successful spell in the Bundesliga so far, managing to reach double-figures for the previous two seasons.
The opening game against Russia will be vital and really is a must-not-lose you’d think. This is a team who must start well to prevent any lethargy creeping in and give themselves something to build upon. A loss and it will be very difficult for them to find the belief and motivation to recover.
The Greens might be considered the rank outsiders of Group H but they will be quietly optimistic that they can spring a surprise here. Like Belgium, they have benefited from many talented players emerging in recent years. Winning all three friendlies played since qualifying only increases their optimism.
As stated, the real quality within this Algeria squad mainly comes from the newer generation. Faouzi Ghoulam being one of them. The French-born left-back’s sterling performances for an overachieving Saint-Étienne earned him a January move to Rafa Benitez’s Napoli side and he has seamlessly coped with the step up.
Though few players experience as rise as meteoric as that of Nabil Bentaleb, the teenager only made his senior debut in December but now is almost certain to start at the World Cup. Partnering him in midfield will be Saphir Taïder, a superb talent who has all the makings of becoming the complete midfielder. Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli is the obvious creative spark and Islam Slimani, who boasts a one-in-two strike-rate for the national team, will be looked upon to find himself on the end of most chances created by the former.
However, other than Ghoulam, the recent influx of talent hasn’t included any defenders and thus Algeria’s defence is significantly weaker than other areas of their team. Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić will hope that it can hold together and not prove to be a costly weak-link.
As far as the most potent team in the group goes, it is difficult to look beyond Belgium and therefore you would expect the group’s top-scorer to one of their players. However, I am going to tip an under-the-radar candidate in Dries Mertens. The extra focus by opposition defences on the likes of Lukaku and Hazard should allow him to exploit the resultant space and as his goalscoring record at club record in recent seasons suggests, he is very capable in this department.
Belgium and Russia. I see no real shocks here I’m afraid. Belgium may suffer from a few nerves but they simply have too good a team that they should prove too much for South Korea and Algeria. Russia seem to have developed the tendency to grind out results under Capello, so I’d back them to see their way through also.
Aston Villa connection
As already mentioned, if Christian Benteke hadn’t had the World Cup cruelly snatched away from him then he would most likely have been spearheading the Belgian attack. The belief amongst Villans was that he could’ve set the tournament alight and greatly inflated his price tag should he have left on the back of that. On a selfish note though, the extent of his injury at least means that he’ll be remaining here for another season.
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