Rounding out the tournament are the four Group H nations. The only group without a South American – or even a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking – nation, this group may have smaller audiences in the stands, but I expect some action nonetheless.
Team by team:
Belgium are definitely a potential ‘dark horse’ team this year. The Red Devils, while perhaps not yet reaching the quality of their 1986 side (when they reached the semifinals and lost to eventual winners Argentina), have a wealth of talent in almost every position, and indeed reached an all time high of fifth in the world rankings late last year. One to watch will be Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, a player gifted with the ability to make defence-unlocking runs and create space for teammates.
On paper, Algeria look like the whipping boys of the group, but their FIFA world ranking of 22 suggests more quality than they are often given credit for. Sent home from 2010 without a single win, the Desert Foxes have been quietly improving, boosted by a much-strengthened domestic pro league and the iron will of coach Vahid Halilhodzic. Argentina legend Diego Maradona, not often a man given to praising anyone other than himself, recently predicted that Algeria ‘will cause a surprise.’
The last time coach Fabio Capello took a team to the World Cup, it was England in 2010. Now he’s back, this time at the helm of Russia. Capello’s authoritarian style seems to suit the Russian team, enough so that his contract has already been extended to cover the next World Cup. Built almost entirely from CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia’s domestic league, this team will not be familiar faces to their upcoming opponents, and this may be advantageous.
South Korea, co-hosts of the 2002 tournament, have also been quietly improving. Now making their 8th consecutive World Cup appearance, the Taeguk Warriors will be viewed as genuine challengers within the group. Coached by 2002 golden boy Hong Myung-Bo (who also led them to Olympic bronze two years ago) and boasting Bayer Leverkusen’s club-record signing Son Heung-Min, they certainly won’t be pushovers.
Predicted group standings: