World Cup Profiles - Group H

Group H

Marc Wilmots’ Belgium undoubtedly provide one of the most intriguing subplots of this World Cup. There is the belief in some quarters that this ‘golden generation’ has what it takes to emulate the 1986 team and reach the semi-finals of this tournament. And one can understand such a point of view. While the winner is likely to emerge from powerhouses Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina, this Belgium side has the potential to upset the established order and truly announce themselves on the world stage.

Wilmots’ side went undefeated and never looked back after their comfortable away win in Wales back in September 2012. How have Belgium been able to assemble a group of such ultra-talented young players all at once? In a similar way to Germany, Belgium improved their coaching at grassroots level, fed young players through a honed academy system and ensured that they were given a chance at a young age. The results could be spectacular over the coming years.

How they qualified
Having looked to be building towards something special for a number of years, Belgium finally made the breakthrough many expected, with a golden generation seemingly capable of challenging the best. Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils) proved that on the road to Brazil 2014, topping Group A ahead of the likes of Croatia, Serbia and Scotland after an almost faultless campaign. The Belgians only dropped points in an early draw against Croatia and a second stalemate in their final outing, when their finals place was already assured. They sealed their progress in their penultimate encounter, an excellent 2-1 victory in Zagreb that owed much to a double from Romelu Lukaku, one of several talents who have added a new dimension to their game since moving to the English Premier League.

World Cup history
Founding members of FIFA, Belgium have taken part in 11 FIFA World Cup final tournaments and were an ever-present force between 1982 and 2002. In 1998, the side coached by Georges Leekens in his first spell at the helm came third in their group and made an early exit, while in 2002 Robert Waseige’s men fell in the last 16 to eventual winners Brazil. Neither of those teams came anywhere close to matching the generation that sparkled during Mexico in 1986, when they reached the semi-finals before succumbing to Argentina.

Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid), Simon Mignolet (FC Liverpool), Koen Casteels (Hoffenheim), Silvio Proto (Anderlecht)
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Atletico Madrid), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Nicolas Lombaerts(Zenit St. Petersburg), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Anthony Vanden Borre (Anderlecht) , Thomas Vermaelen(Arsenal), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)
Midfielders: Nacer Chadli (Tottenham), Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg), Steven Defour (Porto), Moussa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Zenit St. Petersburg)
Forwards: Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Divock Origi (Lille)

Key players
On paper, Belgium can call upon an armada of stars, all plying their trade in Europe’s most prestigious championships. From outstanding young goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, through to the explosive Romelu Lukaku in attack, the team oozes class and potential. Captain Vincent Kompany can lay serious claim to being one of the best defenders in world soccer and is well respected both on and off the pitch. Axel Witsel is the team’s midfield general and was an ever present in qualifying. The pace and trickery of Kevin Mirallas, the strength of Mousa Dembele and the skill and invention of Eden Hazard were all key factors in Belgium comfortably topping Group A ahead of Croatia. And this is before even giving a mention to established Premier League performers Jan Vertongen, Thomas Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini. Let’s also not forget Kevin De Bruyne, instrumental in the 3-0 win away to Serbia and top scorer in qualifying with four goals. The injury to main striker Christian Benteke is a blow, but Lukaku should prove a more than able replacement.

The Coach: Marc Wilmots
Belgium’s leading scorer in World Cup history, Wilmots was a creative midfielder and has been one of the nation’s best players of the last 20 years. His ability to speak French, Dutch and German has been instrumental in bridging the linguistic divide and helping to establish harmony in the squad.

Prediction: Knockout stage
Wilmots will have been more than happy with a group containing Russia, South Korea and Algeria. It will almost certainly be a two-way fight with Russia to decide who finishes top, and Wilmots undoubtedly has a stronger team at his disposal than Capello, if a less experienced one. While several of Belgium’s old guard believe that reaching the second round should be considered a success and that a strong Euro 2016 is what Belgium are gunning for, but they are tipped to defy the odds and make the quarter-finals by topping their group.

Quik Facts:
Fifa Ranking: 12th
Best World Cup Result: Semi-finals (1986)
Best European Championship Result: Runners-up (1980)
Record Scorers: Bernard Voorhoof and Paul Van Himst (30)
Most Capped Player: Jan Ceulemans (96)
Captain: Vincent Kompany

Group Matches:
Tuesday 17th June v Algeria (Belo Horzonte)
Sunday 22nd June v Russia (Rio de Janeiro)
Thursday 26th June v South Korea (Sao Paulo)

Despite promising much, Russia’s recent history at the World Cup is little to write home about. Having failed to qualify for three out of the past four tournaments, and never progressing past the group stages since the break-up of the Soviet Union, they will be determined to make an impression in Brazil before they themselves take a turn at playing hosts in 2018.

A large majority of the squad ply their trade with their home country, and they are blessed with a strong spine of experienced regulars in Igor Akinfeev, Sergei Ignashevich, and Roman Shirokov. Add to that the skill of Alan Dzagoev, the goals of Alexandr Kerzhakov and the expertise of manager Fabio Capello and you have a squad truly capable of threatening the big boys in the group stage and beyond. This was shown during their impressive qualifying campaign, as they outperformed a Portuguese side spearheaded by Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, which will give the Russians confidence that they can be a real threat to anyone.

How they qualified
Drawn alongside Portugal, Russia were not favourites to win Group F and earn direct passage to Brazil 2014. Expectations soon shifted after a perfect start to their campaign, as the Russians kicked off with wins over Northern Ireland and Israel. Having set the tone, Fabio Capello’s side then revealed their ambitions by beating the Portuguese in Moscow courtesy of a solitary Alexander Kerzhakov goal. A narrow 1-0 defeat of Azerbaijan made it four wins out of four, at which point the Russians stumbled, losing to Portugal away and then going down unexpectedly to the Northern Irish in a fixture that had to be rescheduled due to bad weather. With the Portuguese breathing down their necks, Capello’s charges had no option but to react, which they did, sandwiching a home win over Israel with two defeats of Luxembourg. That run that left them needing only a draw away to the Azeris to book their return to the world finals, a result they duly secured.

World Cup history
Russia reached the quarter-finals at Sweden 1958, Chile 1962 and Mexico 1970. In the former two tournaments, they were eliminated by the hosts, while Uruguay were accountable for their exit after extra time in Mexico City. The Eastern Europeans went one better at England 1966, when, inspired by goalkeeper Lev Yashin and forward Igor Chislenko, they topped their group and edged a formidable Hungary, before losing 2-1 to both West Germany in the semis and Portugal in the play-off for third place. First-phase elimination befell the Russians in the last two appearances at the FIFA World Cup, at USA 1994 and Korea/Japan 2002, though they made their mark in the States with a crushing 6-1 defeat of Cameroon, a match in which Oleg Salenko scored five goals en route to ending the tournament as joint leading marksman. Russia then failed to reach Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, the second of those campaigns ending in frustration in the play-offs, where they were beaten by Slovenia.

Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Yury Lodygin (Zenit St. Petersburg), Sergey Ryzhikov (Rubin Kazan).
Defenders: Vasili Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Granat (Dynamo Moscow), Andrey Eshchenko (Anzhi Makhachkala), Sergey Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Alexey Kozlov (Dynamo Moscow), Dmitry Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Andrey Semenov (Terek Grozny), Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moscow).
Midfielders: Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moscow), Igor Denisov (Dynamo Moscow), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), Yury Zhirkov (Dynamo Moscow), Alexey Ionov (Dynamo Moscow), Pavel Mogilevets (Rubin Kazan), Alexander Samedov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Victor Faizulin (Zenit St Petersburg), Oleg Shatov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (Krasnodar).
Forwards: Maxim Kanunnikov (Amkar Perm), Alexander Kerzhakov (Zenit St Petersburg), Alexander Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow)

Key players
This latest Russian side is built on solid defensive foundations. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev did not miss a single minute of the qualifying competition and conceded just five goals during the course of it, while Sergey Ignashevich marshalled the defence with aplomb. Yet Fabio Capello’s most prized assets can be found in what is a technically gifted and astute midfield unit, where Roman Shirokov and Victor Fayzulin have continued to hone the partnership they have forged at Zenit St Petersburg, scoring six goals between them in the qualifiers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team’s top scorer was Kerzhakov. Though not always a starter, the Zenit striker helped himself to five goals during the campaign, the most important of them being that winner against the Portuguese. A lethal finisher, the former Sevilla man could wreak havoc in Brazil.

The Coach: Fabio Capello
A managerial heavyweight, having made his name initially in Italy with Milan, Roma and Juventus before enjoying success with Real Madrid. He took the England job in 2008 before resigning four years later and then taking up his current position. He has built on the success of his predecessor Advocaat, overcoming the threat of Portugal to lead Russia to the top of their qualifying group for Brazil. A new contract ensuring that he will lead the country in their home World Cup in 2018 is a sign of the faith in him, and under his tutelage Russia will be confident of making their first real impression in a World Cup since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Prediction: Knockout stage
With Capello at the helm and a settled side, the Russians will be confident of making a real impression come the summer. Algeria and South Korea should offer no real threat to them if they play to their capabilities, with Belgium surely offering them the sternest of their credentials.

Quik Facts:
Fifa Ranking: 18th
Best World Cup Result: 4th place (1966)
Best European Championship Result: Winners (1960)
Record Scorer: Oleg Blokhin (42)
Most Capped Player: Oleg Blokhin (112)
Captain: Sergei Ignashevich

Group Matches:
Tuesday 17 June v South Korea (Cuiaba)
Sunday 22 June v Belgium (Rio de Janeiro)
Thursday 26 June v Algeria (Curitiba)

Algeria’s World Cup record leaves plenty to be desired given they have never qualified from the group stages, although they came close in 1982 when they won two out of their three games, only to lose out to Austria on goal difference. 2010 was a rather more straightforward tale for the Fennec Foxes as they failed to score a goal and picked up a solitary point, in a 0-0 draw with England. Despite topping their qualification group for the 2014 finals, losing just once to Benin, Algeria finally qualified for Brazil thanks to a superior away goals record against Burkina Faso.
Algeria can be considered as a sleeping giant of African soccer, having enjoyed little success since the last time they were crowned African Cup of Nations champions in 1990. They may, however, fancy their chances of progressing through their World Cup group, given they have been drawn alongside Belgium, Russia and South Korea in Group H. The majority of Algeria’s squad operate outside of their native country, with the likes of Ishak Belfodil (on loan at Livorno from Inter Milan) and Sofiane Feghouli playing at a high level in Europe. That experience will be crucial if Algeria are to better their previous World Cup record.

How they qualified
After a so-so South Africa 2010 and a poor 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Algeria missed very few beats on their way to Brazil 2014. They won five of their six group matches to easily top what might have been a tricky section over Mali, Benin and Rwanda. Islam Slimani, who plies his trade in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon, was Algeria’s leading scorer with five. Once in the final play-off round, they were unlucky to draw one of the continents form teams in Burkina Faso, who shocked Africa by finishing second at the 2013 AFCON. In that tie, they lost the first leg 3-2 to a late penalty, but just claimed the place in Brazil with a professional 1-0 win at home that gave them the advantage on away goals.

World Cup history
Algeria have played in a total of three FIFA World Cup finals. They got off to the best possible start at the 1982 edition in Spain, beating West Germany 2-1 in their opening game. Despite a 3-2 victory over Chile in their final group game, an earlier 2-0 loss to Austria meant that while level on points with the latter, they were eliminated on goal difference. Mexico 1986 was less memorable for the north African side. Drawn in Group D with Brazil, Spain and Northern Ireland, two defeats and a draw left them bottom of the table and on the first flight home. Nor were things much better at South Africa 2010. Pitted against England, USA and Slovenia, they lost twice and drew their other fixture, departing the competition without a goal to their name.  
Mohamed Zemmamouche (USM Alger), Rais Mbolhi (CSKA Sofia, Bulgaria), Cedric Si Mohamed (CS Constantine)
Defenders: Carl Medjani (Valenciennes), Aissa Mandi (Reims), Madjid Bougherra (Lekhwiya), Faouzi Ghoulam (Naples), Rafik Halliche (Academica Coimbra), Essaid Belkalem (Watford), Liassine Cadamuro (Majorque), Djamel Mesbah (Livourne), Mehdi Mostefa (AC Ajaccio)
Midfielders: Sofiane Feghouli (Valence), Saphir Taider (Inter Milan), Medhi Lacen (Getafe), Abdelmoumen Djabou (Club Africain), Yacine Brahimi (Grenade), Hassan Yebda (Udinese), Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham), Riyad Mahrez (Leicester)
Forwards: Islam Slimani (Sporting Portugal), Hilal Soudani (Dinamo Zagreb), Nabil Ghilas (FC Porto)

Key players
Madjid Bougherra is a key figure at the back, and he scored the all-important winner in the second leg against Burkina Faso. Sofiane Feghouli is an exciting attacking midfielder, while Medhi Lacen holds things down in front of the defence. Islam Slimani emerged as the most prolific option in attack during qualifying.

The Coach: Vahid Halihodzic
Yugoslavian-born Vahid Halihodzic, like so many national team managers of today, is a much-travelled man. Before taking over the reins of the Algeria national team in July 2011, Halihodzic had short spells with a number of teams, both club and country, although none ending particularly successfully. The 61-year old possesses just two trophies to his name; the Coupe de France, won during his second spell with Paris-Saint Germain in 2004, and the African Champions League back in 1997 with Raja Casablanca. Halihodzic’s only previous stint in international soccer was with Ivory Coast, who fired him four months after the country’s African Cup of Nations quarter-final defeat to Algeria in 2010. Outside of the game, Halihodzic suffered serious injuries after being shot during conflict in Bosnia in 1992, an incident which impacted his decision to leave the country and move to France in 1993. He has not returned to Bosnia in a sporting capacity since.

Prediction: Group Stage
Algeria’s previous World Cup pedigree offers little hope that the North Africans will be able to climb out of a strong group, albeit with no obvious group winners. Their squad is inexperienced and their manager has never been to a World Cup. However, the advantage for Algeria is they don’t have to play any tournament favourites, with Belgium, ranked 11th by FIFA, the toughest challenge. This, though, is set to be another tournament that passes Algeria by.

Quik Facts:
Fifa Ranking: 25th
Best World Cup Result: Group Stage (1982, 1986, 2010)
Best African Cup of Nations Result: Winners (1990)
Record Scorer: Abdelhafid Tasfaout (35)
Most Capped Player: Lakhdar Belloumi (101)
Captain: Madjid Bougherra

Group Matches:
Tuesday June 17 2014 v Belgium (Belo Horizonte)
Sunday June 22, 2014 v South Korea (Porto Alegre)
Thursday June 26, 2014 v Russia (Curitiba)

South Korea
A shaky yet ultimately successful qualifying campaign led South Korea to an eighth straight World Cup appearance, but also culminated in the resignation of their much-maligned manager Choi Kang-Hee. Former player Hong Myung-Bo has since been given the reigns and will lead his side to Brazil hoping to replicate their famous 2002 run to the semi finals, in which he played a starring role at the heart of the defence. He will likely have his work cut out though, after ‘The Reds’’ largely unimpressive journey to Brazil, scraping through their group only on goal difference past a distinctly average Uzbekistan side.
A majority of the squad ply their trade in their homeland, but Korea also boast several talents scattered across some of Europe’s top leagues. Ki Sung-Yeung has made a name in England, first with Swansea and then Sunderland, and captain Lee Chung-Yong is arguably a far better player than his current Championship level with Bolton Wanderers. Arsenal fans will find it difficult to believe that Park Chu-Young was Korea’s top scorer in qualifying after his largely anonymous career in North London, and he will look to fire Korea into the knockout stages alongside bright prospect Son Heung-Min.

How they qualified
Before finally securing their eighth consecutive FIFA World Cup qualification, Korea Republic had twice seen their campaign in significant peril. Unlike Japan, who counted on the same starting XI and Australia, who used their core of experienced players throughout qualification, a proven and reliable starting line-up was elusive for Korea Republic throughout the qualifying competition. With the squad changing constantly, an unprepared Taeguk Warrior side were stunned 2-1 by Lebanon in the third round’s penultimate match, which left their hopes hanging by a thread. The defeat cost Cho Kwangrae his job but under new boss Choi Kanghee, Korea Republic dispatched Kuwait 2-0 to progress at the West Asian’s expense. The next round continued nearly in the same vein, with Choi’s side floundering with draws against Uzbekistan and Lebanon and a defeat to Iran. A 1-0 home win against Uzbekistan in the penultimate game saw their fortunes revived, but after losing the closing game to Iran by the identical scoreline, they had to wait until Uzbekistan’s 5-1 defeat of Qatar to confirm their direct qualification by edging the central Asians on goal difference.

World Cup history
Despite being Asia’s most frequent visitors to world football’s showpiece event, Korea Republic had never won a match at the finals until they co-hosted Korea/Japan 2002. They got off to a winning start with victory over Poland before defeating Portugal to reach the second round for the first time. The Taeguk Warriors went on to reach the semi-finals at the expense of Italy and Spain, only to lose to Germany in the last four. In 2010, they made history again by reaching the knockout stage for the first time on foreign soil, before going down at the hands of Uruguay in the Round of 16.

Jung Sung-ryong (Suwon Bluewings), Kim Seung-gyu (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Bum-young (Busan I'Park)
Defenders: Hong Jeong-ho (Augsburg), Hwang Seo-ho (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Kim Chang-soo (Kashiwa Reysol), Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), Kwak Tae-hwi (Al Hilal), Lee Yong (Ulsan Hyundai), Yun Suk-young (QPR), Park Joo-ho (Mainz)
Midfielders: Ha Dae-sung (Beijing Guoan), Han Kook-young (Kashiwa Reysol), Ji Dong-won (Augsburg), Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff City), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton), Park Jong-woo (Guangzhou R&F), Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen).
Forwards: Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan Hyundai), Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz), Lee Keun-ho (Sangju Sangmu), Park Chu-young (Arsenal)

Key players
The squad's make-up kept changing during the qualifying and under new coach Hong Myungbo, a new-look team has taken shape. A series of emerging stars, notably German-based Son Heungmin and Koo Jacheol, have graduated into the team's backbone force. Bolton Wanderers' Lee Chungyong is the new man wearing the captain's armband and home-based Kim Shinwook and Lee Keunho are proven goal-scorers.

The Coach: Hong Myung-Bo
Known as the ‘Korean Libero’ during his playing days, Myung-Bo took charge of his country back in June 2013. He has plenty of big tournament experience, as a player during Korea’s run to the 2002 semis, as assistant to Dick Advocaat for the next World Cup and then leading Korea to the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.

Prediction: Group stage
Tournament dark horses Belgium will be expected by many to top this group, with world-class talents such as Eden Hazard making them favourites. On the other end of the scale, Algeria look the weakest side by far, leaving the South Koreans to battle it out with Russia for second.

Quik Facts:
Fifa Ranking: 55th
Best World Cup Result: 4th place (2002)
Best Asian Cup Result: Winners (1956 & 1960)
Record Scorer: Cha Bum-Kun (55)
Most Capped Player: Hong Myung-Bo (136)
Captain: Lee Chung-Yong

Group Matches:
Tuesday 17 June v Russia (Cuiaba)
Sunday 22 June v Algeria (Porto Alegre)
Thursday 26 June v Belgium (Sao Paulo)