Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2014 World Cup Preview: Group H

Group H features two teams moving in opposite directions on the international stage in Belgium and South Korea while Russia and Algeria have remained solidly consistent. The Belgians are the clear favorites to advance from this group, but the second spot could be had by any of the other three sides.

I've teamed up with Pat (follow him on Twitter @The_Incline) to preview the 32 teams in the tournament.

Join my World Cup Bracket Predictor Group! (ESPN account required, but it's free to sign up if you don't have one.)
World Cup Appearances: 12
Best Result: Fourth Place (1986)
How they Qualified: Won UEFA Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 12

The Belgian squad went on a meteoric rise through World Rankings in the last 3 years. After missing the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and falling to 62nd in the world in early 2011, the team began a rise that would see them peak at 5th in the World Ranking in 2013. The Belgians breezed through qualification, winning 8 games and drawing twice while conceeding only 4 goals (the second lowest in UEFA qualification behind only Spain). This is a young and somewhat inexperienced Belgian team as they did not compete in the 2006 or 2010 World Cups or Euro 2008 and Euro 2012. Their roster features only one player over 30 and lists two 19-year old forwards. This is a team brimming with talent, as was on display in their 4-2 friendly victory over the United States, but the pressure of the international stage may be too much for this young roster to handle. They should advance out of the group stage, but they could be eliminated early in the knockout round if they run into a more experienced squad.
Pat's Players to Watch

  • Eden Hazard: Belgium is full of talent. So much so that the dark horses of the tournament are no longer considered to be that anymore. Belgium oppressive attack is spearheaded by Hazard, the Chelsea forward. He will control play and make runs that should exhaust just about any opponent. The attention paid to Hazard will greatly benefit De Bruyne, Mirallas, and Mertens. Hazard scored 17 goals in 49 appearances for Chelsea this season. 
  • Romelu Lukaku: Christian Benteke, the Aston Villa striker, has been ruled out of the World Cup due to injury. That means Lukaku, who signed with Chelsea in 2011 but was loaned out in consecutive seasons to West Brom and Everton, will be tasked with being the target man for what I consider the most exciting team in the tournament. Lukaku tallied 16 goals in 33 appearances for the Toffees. Look for a breakout performance from the strong and skilled Lukaku (and likewise for his Belgian teammates). 

World Cup Appearances: 4
Best Result: First Round (1982, 1986, 2010)
How they Qualified: Defeated Burkina Faso on aggregate tiebreaker in CAF Playoff
FIFA Ranking: 25

Algeria qualified for their second consecutive World Cup after narrowly edging Burkina Faso in the aggregate scoring tiebreaker. This is a side that has improved significantly - especially on the offensive end - from the group that took the pitch in South Africa in 2010. Forward Islam Slimani was second in scoring in the group stage of CAF qualifying, finding the net 5 times. They remain a defensively sound squad that made a name for themselves in 2010 after playing England to a 0-0 draw. Algeria's issues at the 2010 World Cup were on the offense end as they failed to score a goal in the tournament while losing just 1-0 to Slovenia and the United States. Algeria did not qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations and was eliminated in the Group Stage in 2013. Given this, Algeria does not have much in the way of experience and will likely rely on a collapsing defensive structure to keep their games low-scoring in an attempt to score on counter-attacks. Despite their Top-25 ranking in the world, it seems unlikely that they will advance in this tournament.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Sofiane Feghouli: Algeria's most skillful player and has proven himself in Spain over the past few seasons with some impressive performances at Valencia. Feghouli, French-born and a product of the under-21 French national side, has scored five goals in 17 international appearances. He has everything to trouble defenders: pace, skill, passing and an eye for goal. Consistency will be key for Algeria to have a fighting chance in this group.
  • Madjid Bougherra: The 31-year-old Bougherra has played more than 60 times for his country, but the rugged defender's club career has been more successful. He won three straight league titles with Scottish club Rangers and was a fan favorite before being sold to Lekhwiya, where he scored on his debut and won the Qatar Stars League in his first season. He has been a fixture on Algeria’s back line for the past 10 years.

World Cup Appearances: 10
Best Result: Fourth Place (1966)
How they Qualified: Won UEFA Qualification Group
FIFA Ranking: 18

The Russians narrowly edged Portugal by 1 point to win their qualification group and not be subjected to the UEFA playoff stage. Russia has not qualified for a World Cup since 2002, but they did make a run to the semi-finals at Euro 2008. Of all the teams in the group, the Russians have been the most consistent in the World Rankings, hovering between 22nd and 9th sicne October 2010. Even though they were eliminated in the Group Stage at Euro 2012, the Russians have had modest success in international friendlies since then, drawing with Ivory Coast and the United States in 2012 and scoring 1-1 draws against Brazil and Serbia in 2013. They also defeated South Korea in a friendly in late 2013, whom they will face in their opening match of this tournament. As is the case with the other sides in this group, the Russians have a young and somewhat inexperienced lineup. That said, they have talent at the front end and should be a contender to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament, should they be able to replicate their result against South Korea.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Alexander Kerzakov: After joining Zenit St. Petersburg in 2001, Kerzhakov signed with Spanish club Sevilla in 2006 and won the Copa del Rey and UEFA Cup. But he was back in Russia in 2008 with Dynamo Moscow and then with Zenit in January 2010. Eleven goals in 16 appearances is a pretty good rate for the 31 year old striker. 
  • Igor Akinfeev: The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper made his debut for Russia when he was only 18 years old, making him the youngest newcomer to the national squad. He has been Russia's top goalkeeper since 2005. Akinfeev's father brought him to the CSKA football school when he was 4 and he has never switched to another club after making his professional debut in 2003.

World Cup Appearances: 9
Best Result: Fourth Place (2002)
How they Qualified: Finished second in AFC Qualification Group, edging Uzbekistan on tiebreakers
FIFA Ranking: 55

While the Belgian side has seen a massive rise in the World Rankings, South Korea is falling like they are wearing concrete shoes. Their ranking peaked in October 2012 when they cracked the top 25 in the world but since have tumbled 30 spots, losing friendlies to Croatia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and the Unied States. Despite their recent struggles, this is a team that has surprised on the international circuit before, finishing 4th in 2002 and reaching the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup. South Korea is a team where the sum is better than the individual collective parts and they are at their most successful when they stay within their organizational structure. The team lacks elite creaters and finishers on the front lines, but they are capable of producing goals on the counter-attack. They are not incredibly solid on the defensive end and you will likely hear words like "teamwork" and "hustle" associated with the Korean team should they find success.

Pat's Players to Watch

  • Son Heung-Min: The striker transferred to Bayer Leverkusen last July for $14 million after three seasons at Hamburg. The 21-year-old Son has not been consistently excellent for his new team but when he has played well, he's played very well. Son, a streaky scorer, uses his pace and powerful long-range shots to keep defenders on their heels.
  • Park Chu-Young: The Arsenal striker has only played seven minutes in the Premier League since joining the Gunners in August 2011. He is currently on loan to second-division club Watford as he bids to stay in shape. Inactivity at Arsenal cost Park his international place, but before the move to London he was one of Asia's top strikers. Clever and technically excellent, Park leads the line well and links up with the team's talented attackers.

Ian's PredictionPat's Prediction

No comments: