Alex McInnes brings an end to his awesome coverage of the World Cup groups with his verdict on Group H.
I’ve been excited about this young team for a good three or four years now and I sincerely hope they can fulfil their potential this summer. ‘De Rode Duivels’ (Red Devils) absolutely stormed their UEFA qualifying group winning eight and drawing two out of a ten game series finishing 9 points clear of second placed Croatia, conceding just four goals along the way. I started to become aware of Belgium’s burgeoning youth production line a few years back, initially as a self proclaimed fan of Ajax I was hearing things about the likes of Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld who were all technically astute, solid defenders and then Standard de Liege started to bring through the now much maligned Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Porto’s dynamic playmaker Steven Defour. Add to that Anderlecht’s production of Vincent Kompany and Anthony van den Borre a few years earlier, things were looking promising. Most of the aforementioned players have gone on to play top level European football and more and more talents have been zooming off the production line soon after. I don’t particularly know the state of youth football in Belgium but whatever they have going, they’re doing it right. This will be the Belgians first World Cup appearance since 2002 where they were knocked out in the round of 16th but progressed from their group thanks to three goals from Marc Wilmots. Fast forward 12 years and they are now under the tutelage of Wilmots. Belgium now have everything going for them and they would be silly to not take advantage of that. Solid in all areas, I fully expect them to win the group and progress to the quarter and maybe even semi final. Key players are obvious but keep your eyes on La Liga winners Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld, two time Premier League winning captain Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Defour, ex-Chelsea player Kevin de Bruyne, Napoli’s Dries Mertens, the mercurial Eden Hazard and the behemoth up front, Romelu Lukaku.
I’m afraid to say Algeria are one of the teams that I know rather little of. What I can tell you is that this will be their fourth ever appearance at a finals in their history, the others being in 1982, 1986 and then not until 2010. The Algerians had a pretty easy and safe passage to the finals initially by finishing top of their CAF qualification group on 15 points and losing just once but they then faced Burkina Faso in a two legged play off, which they lost the away leg 3-2 but then won the home tie 1-0, creatting a 3-3 aggregate score but the away goals rule saw them through, very lucky indeed. They are managed by ex-Nantes and PSG player in the 80s, the Bosnian Vahid Halilhodžić who has done a pretty solid job in his three years in charge so far. Familiar players will be ex-Rangers and Charlton Athletic defender and Algeria captain, Madjid Bougherra, ex-Liverpool defender Carl Medjani, ex-Portsmouth player Hassan Yebda, Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli and Spurs youngster Nabil Bentaleb. Keep an eye on strikers Nabil Ghilas and Islam Slimani who both ply their trade in the Portuguese top flight for both Porto and Sporting Lisbon, respectively. Algeria could easily be one of three teams to follow Belgium out of this group.
The Russians will be hoping to make an impression this year as they will be the hosting nation of the following World Cup, in 2018. This will be only their third ever appearance, having yet to make it out of the Group Stages. Now managed by ex-Roma, Milan, Real Madrid and England manager Fabio Capello, the Russians surprised many by finishing top of their UEFA qualifying group, one point ahead of Portugal. Big things had been expected from Russia after their impressive display at Euro 2008 in which they reached the semi finals, losing 0-3 to Spain. Players such as Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov all made moves to the Premier League but failed to live up to their 2008 showing and subsequently the national team stalled also. Much of the squad for this tournament is rather unfamiliar to me but Russia’s key men if they are to have any chance of getting out of the group will be CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev, Sergey Ignashevich, one half of the confusing twin defensive duo, Vasili Berezutski, Igor Denisov, Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Kokorin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
Korea Republic won many hearts way back in 2002 when they co-hosted the World Cup Finals with Japan, making it all the way to the semi finals under the guidance of Dutchman Guus Hiddink. South Korea have consistently been one of the best Asian teams for quite some time and this summer will signal their ninth appearance at a finals. The Red Devils finished second in their Fourth Round AFC qualification group, two points behind the Iranians but only one goal ahead of third placed Uzbekistan who went on to the Fifth qualifying section and did not progress to the World Cup Finals and they could well have been South Korea, so they can really count themselves lucky. Saying that though, I think they have as good a chance as Russia or Algeria in claiming second spot in the group, it really is up for grabs. No longer with retired national icon, talisman and ex-PSV, Manchester United and QPR midfielder Park Ji-sung, there are players who will really need to step up to the mark. The main guys for the Koreans will be the experienced heads of Kwak Tae-Hwi, captain Koo Ja-Cheol and Arsenal flop Park Chu-Young. Also, keep an eye out for Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung, the now Borussia Dortmund and ex-Sunderland striker Ji Dong-Won and most of all, Bayer Leverkusen’s Song Heung-Min. Who knows what they Koreans can really do but I’m sure they’ll manage a few surprises along the way.
Well that is it! All teams and groups have been previewed and discussed to the best of my knowledge. Some teams have had me waffling and drooling over them like a simple fool and others not so much. I have however learnt quite a bit about the more obscure nations and qualification processes so I’m sure that will stand me in good stead for future pub quizzes. I seriously hope that regardless of all the bad media and protesting over this World Cup, most of it things I rightly agree with, that this is a summer to remember for all you football fans out there. Thank you for reading and following my rambling football chat. I’ll just leave you with a quote that I think suitable; “I’m going to make a prediction – it could go either way.” – RON ATKINSON.