The Russia 2018 Favorites

Over 20 tournaments, since its inception in 1930 through to Brazil 2014, only eight countries have ever lifted the World Cup. All hailing from either South America or Western Europe, the “World Game” may be played all across the globe but it’s dominated by two regions.

Almost all the World Cup winners have another thing in common — a large population. Brazil, the most successful footballing nation in the world, has 209 million football-crazed denizens within its borders. Germany, the four-time champions, boasts a population of 82 million. A large population means a bigger pool to draw from, and it’s seemingly a must-have for any footballing powerhouse.

There is, however, one small exception.

Uruguay: A Football Anomaly

The tiny nation of Uruguay is a stubborn exception to the rule. Wedged between footballing giants Argentina and Brazil, the tiny country of 3.4 million managed to force itself into football history. After winning the inaugural World Cup in 1930, they claimed another twenty years later in 1950.

In the years since, Uruguay has taken a backseat to nations like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, and Germany. Still, the story of Uruguay is a glimmer of hope for smaller nations hoping to make an impact at Russia 2018 and beyond.

The Russia 2018 Favorites

The list of favorites for Russia 2018 holds no surprises. According to this site, defending champions Germany (11/2 odds) are favored to win back-to-back World Cups (a feat last managed by Brazil in 1962), with the other favorites — France (6/1), Brazil (7/1), Argentina (10/1), and Spain (10/1) — not far behind.

All five countries have a few things in common. Most notably, they’re all previous World Cup winners. In fact, those nations have won seven of the last eight World Cups. Italy (20/1) and England (25/1), two more previous world champions, are among the top contenders as well.

And then there’s Uruguay (55/1), the only previous World Cup-winner not among the favorites.

The old guard remains strong. Nations with a rich history of World Cup success continue to dominate international competitions, and every country with 10/1 odds or better has a population of at least 45 million.

But there’s still hope for the little guy, and it comes in the form of chocolate and male models.

A David Among The Goliaths

Portugal – home to Ronaldo, the best(-looking) footballer on Earth – and Belgium – home to Godiva, the best-tasting chocolate on Earth – are both nations of around 10 million people. Yet, on paper, they have the talent to compete with the giants of international football. If you’re hoping for a David-versus-Goliath moment in Russia, they have the best chance. with Portugal placed at 30/1 odds and Belgium at 16/1 to win the next World Cup — not exactly favorites, but certainly outside contenders.

Belgium reached the quarterfinals in 2014, finishing first in their group and defeating the US in the Round of 16. With players like Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku developing tremendously over the last four years, Russia 2018 could finally be their moment. But they don’t have a great track record at the World Cup; their best finish ever was a fourth-place all the way back in 1986. And this talented core of players suffered another letdown at Euro 2016, getting bounced by the even smaller Wales (3-1) in the quarterfinals.

Portugal have had some impressive results recently – including a monumental triumph at Euro 2016 in France, their first European Championship — but they have a history of underperforming at the World Cup, just like Belgium. They finished third in 1966 and fourth in 2006, but were knocked out in the Group Stage in two of the last four tournaments, including Brazil 2014.

Russia will be the team’s last World Cup with Ronaldo in his prime. If they don’t win the trophy next year, it’s likely to be a long wait. Just like World Cup titles, the history of the Ballon D’Or – FIFA’s player of the year award – is replete with winners from massive nations. Yes, the Marco Van Bastens (Netherlands) have had their time at the top. But, for the most part, the winners-list is riddled with the flags of Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the USSR.

Without Ronaldo’s peerless talent, Portugal would be a fringe team in qualification. Even massive nations with tens of millions more people and top-flight development programs go decades without breeding a player of Ronaldo’s caliber. For smaller nations, that’s likely what it will take to break the Goliath’s stranglehold on the trophy: lucking into one or two nonpareils who can get incredibly hot and make up for the lack of depth that teams like Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy are always going to boast. Because, at the end of the day, footballing success seems to be a numbers game.

Tik Tact Tales

World Cup 2014 is still fresh in our memory. So what new did we come across? Which teams impressed us with their discipline or attacking flair? And which managers did impress us with their tactical maneuvering? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes all these and more here with GT.

With the FIFA 2014 World Cup finally coming to a close, there has been a great deal of debate going on about whether this World Cup was the greatest ever. There were several indications that it was definitely one of the best in post world war era. If on the one hand we had loads of goals  (at least in the group stages), plenty of drama and endless emotions, captivating us for more than a month, on the other hand we also witnessed some fascinating tactical battles throughout the campaign. Let us take a look at some tactics that left a lasting impression.


Germany started the competition in 4-3-3 formation with Philipp Lahm, possibly the best right back in the world playing as midfield anchor. Joachim Löw had a fluid front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller with the licence to roam and interchange at will.

Germany formation in the final - dictating the middle of the pitch
Germany formation in the final – dictating the middle of the pitch

Germany stormed through to the second round but looked slow and susceptible against an attacking opponent. In the round of 16 match against Algeria, the German full backs –Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, centre backs in their club teams, started venturing forward but without any substantial impact. It exposed their centre backs and Löw , the mastermind, unleashed Manuel Neuer in an extremely aggressive sweeper keeper role. It was a move which could have backfired but he trusted his keeper who never let him down with 17 perfectly timed clearances outside his penalty box. Germany, however, looked more threatening and settled as Lahm moved to his natural right back role to replace the injured Mustafi, thus paving the way for Sami Khedira in the midfield. The latter added much needed pace in the Die Mannschaft middle third while Bastian Schweinsteiger looked far more comfortable in the deep ball playing role than his captain –  the move ultimately elevated Germany to another level but happened more by chance than planning.

Löw made another decisive switch in the next match against France by introducing an out and out striker in Miroslav Klose upfront. He provided a focal point to the German attack, and allowed Müller to start at his usual right hand channel and drift inside. Although Klose had little impact on the game in the attacking third and more precisely, inside the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre backs, and thus freed up the space for German midfielders to maintain the goal threat.

With Khedira getting ruled out during warm up and his replacement Christoph Kramer having a poor game before leaving the field due to an injury , Germany were set back in the final with the shortage of central midfielders. Özil had to fall back to the midfield trio where he was never at ease. Löw  though had the final say as his super subs André Schürrle and Götze combined to clinch the title.

Germany had a very peculiar team – from an ultra-modern goalkeeper to the old-fashioned goal poacher. But just like the previous two winners Italy and Spain, Germany also had a variety of attacking threats– they seemed to find a goal scorer from virtually every corner of the field during critical moments. Joachim Löw should be credited for not only winning the World Cup, but also nurturing so many young talents en route.


Alejandro Sabella made a huge tactical error as he started the campaign with a 3-5-2, but he quickly went for damage control at half-time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina using only a lone striker upfront, Sabella spared an extra man from the back to add more solidity and control in the midfield. Lionel Messi definitely enjoyed the hybrid 4-3-3 formation and his own false 9 role.

Angel di Maria taking on Swiss defenders succesfully – Source: Squawka

Sabella drastically changed things around in his next match and moved to a 4-2-4 system against an Iran side expected to sit back and defend for their lives. Iran showed tremendous discipline and robbed Argentina of any space. Once again Argentina failed to impress.

Finally Sabella addressed the core issue, albeit through an injury to front man Sergio Agüero. Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced and though he did not produce a tangible end product, he was honest in his wide position and provided a proper 4-2-3-1 balance to the team which gave Messi the licence to roam around. Messi, as expected, was heavily marked throughout the World Cup. However, he constantly managed to drag at least two of the opponent midfielders out of position, which was opening up a vast area between the lines for others to drift into. Unfortunately, more so after the injury to Ángel di María, none of his team mates managed to take advantage. All of Argentina’s movements were distressingly linear playing into opposition hands.

Messi dictated much of the tempo for Argentina. His reserved, calculated and sudden burst of speed while attacking meant that Argentina’s tempo changed from the qualifiers, where they preferred breaking quickly. This tactical shift was very critical for La Albiceleste – the more classic eloquent Latin American display with Messi playing  an archetypal Argentine #10 devoid of any strong European influence.

Pegged by injuries to key players, Sabella opted for Lavezzi and Enzo Pérez– a central midfielder –on the wings, semi final onwards. Lavezzi, a forward, was naturally more effective venturing forward. It showcased how two makeshift wide players, given virtually similar roles, carried them out quite differently. Especially against Germany in the final, Sabella missed a trick by not asking Lavezzi to stick to the right side taking on an uncomfortable German left back Benedikt Höwedes, a right central defender.

In the finals against Germany, Sabella made an inexplicable change at half time, a switch which tilted the balance of the game in Germany’s  favour – in came a half fit Agüero for a very lively Lavezzi and Argentina changed to a midfield diamond.  They lost all the width and pace down the flank, and played to the German hands by being extremely narrow in the central areas. Sabella opted for a star player sacrificing the team shape and it cost him the World Cup.


Louis van Gaal deployed three centre backs with a high-risk strategy – high defensive line, ready to keep possession in deep areas in own half and launch direct balls forward bypassing the opponent midfield and defensive lines. There was clear instruction for two outside centre halfs to track down the two most forward players from the opponent team, even if it meant going beyond own midfield line. This paved the way for a high pressing game with an open channel for kick starting quick counter attacks.

This strategy had some loopholes though. Australian midfielders were ready to make runs deep from their own half to exploit the zone vacated by Dutch centre backs high line. But this, in effect, opened up the game more as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben found themselves one on one against the opponents’ mid fielders. Van Gaal closed down the game by bringing in a pacy winger Memphis Depay to keep the Australian full backs more occupied. A change of formation to 4-3-3 also deprived the Australian front three any open space, resulting in a slower game, where gap in quality eventually won.

Dutch center backs - de Vrij and Martins Indi - tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain
Dutch center backs – de Vrij and Martins Indi – tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain – Source: Squawka

One masterstroke by van Gaal was using Dirk Kuyt, a forward by position, as an auxiliary wing back. It allowed the Oranje to transit seamlessly from a three centre back to classical 4-4-2 during different phases of the match. This was pretty apparent in the round of 16 match against Mexico. After a stalemate in the first half where both the teams cancelled each other out in a 3-5-2 set up and were producing a slow drab game, Van Gaal switched Kuyt to a conventional full back and introduced an out an out winger. The team played an immensely attacking 4-2-1-3 formation, though at the cost of a weaker midfield , as the Dutch won the game through wide areas by pushing the opponents’ wing backs even further – rather 3-4-1-2 to very attacking 4-2-1-3.

A very courageous move was already made by substituting Van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a natural penalty box poacher, perfect for getting on the end of crosses. But the move of the match came during the water break, after which Kuyt moved upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical switch resulted in the late Dutch dominance and a 2-1 comeback win.

The Dutch were good against teams taking the game to them which meant more space to work in counters. But in the quarter final they faced Costa Rica, a mirror image of themselves,  albeit with less attacking flair and prowess. It could have produced a stalemate but not with Netherlands involved. Van Gaal moved his wing backs further up to push back the opposition wing-backs, stretched his forwards with Wesley Sneijders’ across the pitch and kept the Costa Rican centre backs occupied to basket their build-up play.

Costa Rica were content at keeping their shape at the back, and hence did not have anything to offer going forward. The Dutch were controlling the game but had a redundant defender in a 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre backs stepping up into midfield to dictate the game. The Oranje, surprisingly took second half of the extra-time to address this issue, but rightfully changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4, with and Huntelaar coming on up front at the expense of Bruno Martins Indi.

Then came the most talked about substitution of this World Cup. within the 119th minute, van Gaal substituted sub goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen  with Tim Krul. It was more of a psychological move than anything else : Krul is not a penalty specialist, but the iota sub convinced Costa Rica that he was.

And what an inspired substitution it was! Except for the first kick, Krul came out of his goal every time the striker walked towards the penalty spot to place it, normally walking to one side. Then Krul dived in the opposite direction of his walk. And Krul guessed it right every time, saving two in the process.

Netherlands were brilliant throughout the tournament, with van Gaal relying upon an uncommon, tight man-marking system. He was refreshingly flexible to change his formation each game to match his opposition midfield, with wing backs dropping back to have an overload in defence.


Luiz Felipe Scolari changed the way his three attacking men lined up, a tactic that surprised everyone. Oscar, most effective when operated centrally, was drifted to a wider role on the right. Neymar loves to operate from left but he was effectively used as a support striker to centre forward Fred. Hulk, who started right behind the lone striker Fred during, last year’s Confederations Cup win was shifted to the left wing. This change may be due to Neymar’s increased stocks since last year which prompted Big Phil  to offer his star player more time with the ball. But this overhaul complicated things for their most creative player, Oscar, who was visibly not comfortable playing out of position.

There is no denying the fact that nowadays Brazil lacks real skilful, creative, attacking footballers, and Scolari, hence, rightly set up the Seleção as a primarily counter-attacking team. He showed his experience by playing a midfield shuttler in Ramires and sacrificing one of the front men against teams fielding three men at the back.  But sometimes he was let down by the inexperience of Neymar, who played more like a second striker than a number 10, making himself vulnerable to marking.

Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany
Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany. Not tracking back even when the defence surely could do with some help – Source: Squawka

In the annihilation at the hands of Germany, everything that could go wrong for the hosts went wrong. The most perplexing decision was the inclusion of Bernard  in the starting XI. There has been questions on whether it was solely because he is a local Belo Horizonte boy, and Scolari, having lost Neymar already, was desperately trying to cash in on his popularity.  The whole team performance was bizarre. Brazil were atrociously broken into two sections –six defenders, four attackers, and no midfield link between them. The defence could not pass the ball to the attackers, and the front four could not retain possession much longer to ease the pressure on the back six.

In the second half, Scolari made some changes – Paulinho and Ramires replaced Hulk and Fernandinho, switching to more of a 4-3-3, with Luiz Gustavo behind Ramires and Paulinho. In hindsight, this is probably the team and shape Scolari should have started with.


Chile were one of the most versatile sides in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli dished out a midfield diamond with plenty of variations. Marcelo Díaz, the holding midfielder would often drop deep making it a three centre back allowing the full backs to operate more like wingbacks. From there, long diagonal switch of play across the width of the field was one of the characteristics of quick Chilean counter attacks. Up front, at top of the diamond, Jorge Valdivia played further up more like a false nine rather than in a number 10 role. Striker duo of Alexis Sánchez and Edurado Vargas regularly drifted wide dragging the opponent centre halves with them and creating space for Valdivia to run into. Sampaoli also proved his worth as a clever tactician by introducing a fast, direct centre forward Jean Beausejour late in matches and switching to more traditional 4-3-3 to exploit tiring defences.

At times, Chile showed they can be reactive and can adapt very quickly. Sampoli fielded 3-4-1-2 against Spain, to replicate the Dutch pressing game against Spain. He was not copying blindly though – Chile were cautious, giving due respect to Spain as often they sat back deep to form a five man defensive line. But they overloaded when attacking and quickly changed play by passing the ball from one flank to another, a highlight of their famous win.


Jose Pékerman, the veteran Argentine coach, was widely expected to field a narrow 4-2-2-2 in the World Cup but was handicapped by last minute injury to star forward Radamel Falcao and shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star of the campaign was James Rodríguez – not only he dazzled forward but always came deep to collect the ball and play some glorious through balls. Rodríguez was thought to be uncomfortable in a converted winger position but he showed tremendous adaptability and his longitudinal awareness was absolutely brilliant. It also helped that they had two skilful full backs in Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Pablo Armero who besides providing width and making overlapping runs, were comfortable with the ball deep in opponent territory, holding and dribbling past defenders. Colombia displayed tremendous discipline with the back four and the two holding midfielders, and lit the stage with Rodríguez and another trickster in Juan Cuadrado. But they suffered up front as both Jackson Martínez and Teófilo Gutiérrez failed to impress. Had they got a decent striker in the final third to support Rodríguez, Colombia might just have gone all the way.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica shocked everyone the most with their honest and disciplined display of tactical football. Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint as the national team coach, deployed a back three in a counter attack based system. This was in stark contrast to all other teams in the tournament having a three centre half system – Netherlands, Mexico et al were comfortable with the ball, pressed higher and had a possession based approach. On the other hand, Pinto’s team defended deep and relied on direct counter attacks – not through long balls but refreshingly eye catching speedy passing to wide areas. Sometimes they did press high up but generally they allowed the opponent teams to come at them, get exposed at the back and then break free.


Costa Rica were brilliant at setting up off side traps – their tally of 41 successful traps till the quarter final stages was more than double of the second ranked team (Germany) in this category. It shows how cohesive their defensive unit was. But the same unit struggled to switch to a conventional flat four after going down to ten men against the round of 16 match against Greece. Pinto’s tactical shift to 4-4-1 took a while to get going as the wing backs continued to play very wide instead of playing close to the centre backs. They eventually rectified themselves by playing narrow, helping out the stoppers and leaving the flanks to be taken over by the wingers. They eventually won the match on penalties, but did not have enough tricks up their sleeves to progress further in the competition.


Didier Deschamps succeeded in bringing France out of the 2010 World Cup debacle and spearheaded a well-knit unit. France’s star performer was Mathieu Valbuena who occupied the right-sided position in a three men attack but often drifted inside into pockets of spaces in more central positions. He carried out the double role of a right winger as well as a perfect #10 – on top of a midfield diamond – with aplomb.

Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide - again Nigeria in Round of 16
Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide – against Nigeria in Round of 16 – Source: EPLINDEX

But Deschamps struggled to fit in his striker duo of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud in the starting XI efficiently. First of all, Valbuena had to be shifted in the left wing where his utility was compromised. Then, Giroud could not hold up the ball up front effectively enough, and often he mistimed his runs to create space for others. Benzema also became less effective whenever asked to operate from the left in a 4-3-3 system, did not offer any width at all, and could not go behind the last defender into goal scoring positions. In effect, his narrowness resulted in Valbuena’s diminished return.

But Benzema playing as a wide man was even more problematic due to his minimal defensive contribution. Against less disciplined teams such as Switzerland (at the group stage) this approach was still workable, since Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was regularly getting caught in the French half and Benzema could exploit the space in counter-attack. But against more tactically sound sides like Nigeria in the round of 16 match, Efe Ambrose had a more balanced role to carry out. He attacked the French left wing with no one tracking him and combined well with Peter Odemwingie to create problems for Patrice Evra.

Les Blues were playing a lop-sided 4-4-2 and were going nowhere. Deschamps addressed the issue by taking off Giroud, introducing Antoine Griezmann, and shifting Benzema upfront in a classic 4-3-3. This move changed the game – Griezmann’s directness and verticality in possession proved decisive as he linked well with both Benzema and Valbuena. France won courtesy a Paul Pogba header from a corner but ran out of ideas in the quarter final against eventual winner Germany.


Marc Wilmots biggest tactical genius was perhaps the use of his substitutes. In the opener against Algeria he struggled in the first half with a 4-4-1-1 and an inept toothless attack. At the half time, Kevin de Bryune was shifted to a central position, and Belgium now had a potent target man with super sub Marouane Fellaini playing as the second striker. Fellaini did not disappoint and pulled Belgium level with a brilliant header.

Wilmots then put up an example for everyone – he did not hesitate to start with Divock Origi upfront, ahead of his number 1 striker, an underperforming Romelu Lukaku in the knock out stages. But he was not stubborn to prove himself right as he changed things whenever required. The round of 16 match against USA was turning out to be a frustrating one for the Belgian faithful. USA kept on losing the ball frequently and Belgium kept on squandering chances against an impregnable Tim Howard. Wilmots could do nothing much but still he shook things up by introducing a bit of pace by introducing Kevin Mirallas in place of Dries Mertens. In extra-time Lukaku was called off the bench to inject even more pace upfront at the expense of Origi. And Belgium finally got the crucial breakthrough as Lukaku teed up De Bruyne on the break. Ten minutes later the reverse sequence happened and Lukaku’s cameo helped Belgium overcome a stubborn USA side. Belgium created a lot in the match, but a clinical striker made all the difference late in the match.

Wilmots was handicapped with the lack of natural full backs – everyone in his back four was a centre half.  So there was no consistent overlapping runs, no overload in the wide area and one cannot succeed at the World Cup without such a basic weapon.

Notable mentions:

    • England coach Roy Hodgson excited all of us with four attackers in a 4-2-4 system. But obvious downside of this formation was lack of defensive responsibilities and less protection for full backs which cost them a lot. Also Wayne Rooney’s positioning was an issue – he was shifted constantly during and in between matches from either flanks to the behind the striker position. World Cup was no place to decide the best position for the team’s most influential player.
    • Paulo Bento used Cristiano Ronaldo more as a second striker and shifted Raul Merieles towards the left to cover for his vacated space. This was effectively a 4-4-2 but with neither forwards tracking back, it was always a lost battle in the central midfield where the opponent always created a 3 on 2 overload.
    • Greece are one of the most defensive sides the World has ever seen. But they showed their attacking flair too against a 10-man Costa Rica while trailing by a goal. Like any other side, they introduced strikers, moved up the # 10 to play more like a 4-2-4. But they did not simply hit the long balls – instead they pushed the ball wide, stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, tired them out, and lashed some brilliant crosses into the box. They were patient throughout and finally were able to equalize.
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 - Long balls to stretch the play
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 – Long balls to stretch the play – Source: Squawka
    • This World Cup saw a return of three centre back formation. But at the end, many of the teams shifted from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as the wing backs were instructed to be more responsible defensively. At the end of the day, it was evident that the same system could look very different by the roles carried out by individual players.
    • Another notable aspect was that how cagy an affair it can become when two sides fielding the same 3-5-2 formation lock horns (Uruguay vs Italy in the group stage, Netherlands vs Costa Rica in the last eight). Strikers become well marked by the insurance of an extra sweeper; there is no free width to be exploited as the wide areas are well guarded by the wing backs creating 1 v 1 all the time. Midfield area becomes too predictable and three CMs cancel each other out.
    • As we advanced in the tournament, teams got more cautious. Full backs / wing backs were instructed to track their opposite numbers more closely rather than being used as an outlet for attack. This reduced the possibility of having a 2 v 1 overload in the opposition wide areas and the game got more predictable.  Same was the scenario in the middle of the pitch – the midfield triangles were formed much lower; sometimes entirely well within own half by the central midfielders and very few ambitious balls were played forward.  As a result goal scoring opportunities diminished and so did the goals.

At the end of the day it really comes down to the individual players. The coach can always come up with the best of plans to tackle the opponent. But it depends on the players’ adaptability and discipline if they can execute that plan. And how well individuals can execute the tactics differentiates the winner from the rest of the bunch.

H Is For Hurrah

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

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.

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.

Passing Shot

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.