H Is For Hurrah
Group H is the most sought after one for off the field reasons. It is scheduled to start the last giving more time to teams to assess the conditions and also take a good look at the other groups. Matches are going to be played in the southeast of Brazil where the weather is the least punishing and the venues – Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte – are all close to each other, thus requiring minimal travel.
Belgium presents one of its strongest ever teams in the World Stage and finds themselves in a relatively easy group. Group H previewed by Debojyoti Chakraborty
Finally when the lots were drawn, Group H featured four teams who are not outright favourites. But that does not take anything away from the competitive nature of the group. Belgium has been labeled the ‘dark horse’ of the competition whereas Russia always springs in a surprise or two. South Korea has been a very honest performer over the last few editions and then Algeria brings in the African combativeness to complete the group.
Belgium is making an entry into the World Cup after a hiatus of 12 years. For a country of great footballing heritage that is a stretch too far. They saw the worst of times in 2007, slipping down to their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 71 in June 2007. The Red Devils were going through a torturous phase which saw them missing out FIFA as well as EURO competitions. But their rebuilding phase seems to be finally over. Their young brigade – the golden generation – under the guidance of Marc Wilmots achieved their highest ever FIFA ranking (5th) in October, 2013. Now they are all set to prove themselves at the biggest stage.
Les Diables Rouges topped their group in qualifying ahead of Croatia, Serbia and Scotland with a near flawless display. Barring a couple of draws – one at the onset and one when their fate was sealed – they triumphed against all the obstacles that came their way.
Wilmots, all time leading goal scorer for Belgium in the World Cup, is not a shrewd tactician, but he gets the most out of the bunch by giving the young group confidence. Moreover, not only has he instilled discipline in the squad, but also shares a credible rapport with his players.
Apart from genetically having some giants, Belgium has a plethora of talent to choose from. Most of their star players ply their trades across top leagues in Europe – mostly England – and some of them are most sought after. Captain Vincent Kompany of Manchester City forms the backbone of the defense with Tottenham Hotspur’s Jan Vertonghen. In attack, they have one of the most lethal young strikers in Romelu Lukaku. He showed his class and composure in the penultimate qualifying match in Zagreb by scoring a brace and sealing the World Cup berth. But he may not be the best player in a star-studded team, with stiff competition from Atletico Madrid’s shot stopper Thibaut Courtois and Chelsea’s midfield lynchpin Eden Hazard. The team is not only about style and creativity – it also boasts of solidity in the midfield in the form of Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Spurs’ Mousa Dembele. So it is going to be a deadly combination of steel and skill this time round for the Devils.
There is a lot of hype surrounding this team and it is up to the manager to ensure his troops remain grounded. A young side with lots of expectation, this Belgium side can really go places if they can hold onto their nerves. At an average age hovering around 26 that could a challenging task. But if we consider the talent at display, truly the Belgian supporters have every reason to be optimistic. Pole position in the group would be their first objective which should enable them to avoid Germany and then they can set their sights on at least matching their best campaign of 1986.
Like Belgium, Russia are also making a comeback at the World Cup finals since 2002. They showed glimpses of promise in EURO 2012 but fizzed out after a resounding 4-1 win against Czech Republic. They drew the next match against Poland and got eliminated after losing to Greece in their last group match.
Russia bounced back in the World Cup qualifying campaign and topped their group. That is commendable as their group featured Portugal. They started with four outright wins before seeing a little slump in form and lost the next two matches. They did not look back since then though and only dropped a point in their last match when their qualification was already secured.
The squad is made up of mostly home-based players including former Sevilla forward Alexander Kerzhakov, the only Russian player to have appeared in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, and former Chelsea winger Yury Zhirkov. Only surprise inclusion is experienced forward Pavel Pogrebnyak, who at 30, is currently playing in the second tier of English football with Reading. Capello has his authority stamped throughout the squad. He has not hesitated to shut the door for moody players, even if they are stars like Andrei Arshavin.
Managed by Fabio Capello, as usual, Russia are hard to break down. Their defense, a sore thumb in the past, is now a strong foundation. Russia conceded only five goals in qualifying and had clean sheets in fiveout of 10matches. Capello has also adopted double pivot in a typical 4-2-3-1 system instead of a traditional Russian 4-3-3 formation. The midfield will look upon CSKA Moscow man Alan Dzagoev – their only bright spot in EURO 2012 and a classy No 10 – who has been shifted from wide right to a more central, and natural, position by Capello. However, he needs support from Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin to hold fort and create a spark. Their attack is also a decent one, always looking for lateral and diagonal movements to create space for each other. But without a proven goal scorer around, they would need to look for scorer from different parts of the pitch.
Capello has friendlies against Slovakia, Norway and Morocco to expose his team to contrasting playing styles ahead of the World Cup. He would like to forget the ghosts of 2010, especially against Algeria as his then England team could not break the dead lock. Russia has a tough fight in hand but they would want to ensure they put up a good show before hosting the cup in 2018. Their primary objective would be to qualify – for the first time after the Soviet Union era – for the knock out stages. In that process, if not the players, their veteran coach definitely lends them a cutting edge.
Algeria bowed out of World Cup 2010 group stage with a gritty performance. They did not fare too well in the 2013 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) either.
But Algeria put up a fantastic show in their World Cup qualifying campaign. They easily won their group ahead of Mali, Benin and Rwanda winning five of the six matches. Then they got a tough draw in the final play-off against a Burkina Faso team – finalist in AFCON a year ago – in tremendous form. Algeria felt the heat in the first leg but scored two crucial away goals in a 3-2 loss. The Fennec Foxes then showcased a professional display to win 1-0 at home, thanks to a winner from skipper Madjird Bougherra, and sneaked ahead on away goals.
While many still remember their dull and scratchy affair in the 2010 World Cup, this version of Algeria is a much improved one. Much of the credit goes to manager Vahid Hilihodzic who has integrated some promising young players, especially in attacking areas. That is the reason talented players like Yacine Brahimi, Islam Silmani and Sofiane Feghouli have been well complimented by the physical influences of skipper and tough tackling defender Madjird Bougherra and Adlene Guediora.
They have a young striker in Nabil Ghilas, who is spoken about highly in his new club Porto. Ishak Belfodil is their famed big man with a good touch whose breakthrough season at Parma lured Inter to go for him. There he could form a potent partnership with his former Bologna teammate, midfielder SaphirTaider.
But the defence is still very much a work in progress and Halilhodžić will have headaches ahead of their fourth World Cup bow. He will still be expecting his players to work hard, maintain the shape, be stubborn – just like the notoriously difficult-to-breakdown side four years back.
This is a young and developing team and has little experience of big games within their ranks. So Algeria would first look to better their disappointing World Cup show in 2010, where they failed to net a single goal. They have a history of pulling off World Cup shocks which could create some entropy in the group. In the past, they have stunned eventual finalists West Germany in 1982, given Brazil a tough fight in 1986 and held England to a draw in 2010. Not much beyond is expected of them this time too.
South Korea made its debut in World Cup 1954 but could not re-enter the finals for the next 32 years. But since then they have been permanent guests at this mega event, mostly though without making any significant impact. In recent years their dominance as the best Asian team also has come under question. South Korea had an indifferent AFC Asian Cup in 2011 where they failed to reach the final for the second time in a row.
South Korea had a shaky World Cup qualifying campaign. In the third round group matches, they were shambolic on the road. Taegeuk Warriors drew with Kuwait and lost to Lebabon, two teams as low as 95 and 146, respectively, in FIFA ranking. The loss against Lebanon was too bitter a pill to swallow and, consequently, coach Cho Kwang-Rae had to make way for Choi Kang-Hee. However, their sheer experience and perfect home record ensured South Korea would get the top spot from the group. In the fourth round group South Korea were drawn in a much tougher group consisting of Ian, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon. South Korea stuttered throughout the campaign and never looked like a champion team. They lost their last crucial match against Iran – second time in the round robin league – to hand them the pole position and then somehow scrapped through on goal difference ahead of Uzbekistan.
It was a let down for the team considering they were only one goal away from landing into further complicated routes of qualification through a couple of play-offs. Failure to put up a string of good results hampered consistency in the team selection and a reliable starting XI always eluded South Korea. Choi Kang-Hee stepped down and then came in the captain of 2002 World Cup campaign – where South Korea famously reached the semis in their home ground – and former manager of gold medal winning U-23 team of 2012 Olympics, Hong Myung-Bo.
Myung-Bo started revamping and a number of emerging stars were indicted. Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-Yong has been appointed as the leader of the pack and the team boasts of home-based proven goal scorers like Kim Shin-Wook and Lee Keun-Ho.
Known for playing neat and tidy football – though sometimes without any end product or much penetration – there are some decent players in the middle of the park, notably Mainz 05’s Koo Ja-Cheol, Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung and Swansea’s Ki Sung-Yueng who can even double up as a ball-playing centre-back.
Most notable of the new players, though has been Bayer Leverkusen’s record transfer signing Son Heung-Min who has seamlessly become the team’s backbone.Heung-Min, at only 21, is a delight to watch. Quick and two-footed, he can set the stage on fire on the back of a decent domestic season.
South Korea has an outside chance of making it through to the next round. The match against Russia might well seal their feat. But even then they will be hard pressed to go beyond the second round as the German powerhouse might welcome them with open arms.
Last time Belgium met Russia in a World Cup, it was a thrilling 3-2 win for the Red Devils in 2002. The winner came in the 82nd minute. The scorer? Current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots.