Group H: Predictions and Preview
It might sound mundane but this was the group many teams wanted to be in even before the draw started. Why? Well, because it’s the last to start, meaning there’s more time to prepare and acclimatise. It has logistical advantages too and the conditions should benefit those who make it up. Games will be played in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, which are all close together in the southeast of Brazil, where the weather is mild and the humidity low through June and July.
Going on first impressions, this group seems like one of the easiest. It’s not quite as straightforward as E appears, but you’d think Belgium would be confident of making good on their promise. That’s unless they become presumptuous and take Algeria and South Korea too lightly. Russia won’t, not if Fabio Capello can help it. Memories of 2010 still hurt the Italian. England were in a group branded EASY, comprised as it was of Algeria, Slovenia and "the Yanks." They made hard work of it, finishing second. Will Algeria frustrate Capello again, as they did by holding his England to a stalemate in Cape Town four years ago? We’ll have to wait and see.
Belgium: Like Colombia, they are a team blessed with a golden generation, but Belgium’s feels more complete. They have a top goalkeeper in Thibaut Courtois; excellent centre-backs in Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany; a dynamic midfield featuring Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele; pace and invention wide and between the lines in Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas; then Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke up front. There’s depth too. Qualifying was a breeze and there’s a lot of hype. You just question whether to believe it. On paper, there’s no reason they can’t make the last four as they did in 1986.
Algeria: The future looks relatively bright. Granted, they don’t have a Rabah Madjer, but Nabil Ghilas, who has followed in his footsteps by joining Porto, was a powerhouse of a goal scorer in Portugal last season and poses a threat. Ishak Belfodil is the proverbial big man with a good touch, who broke through at Parma last season and won a move to Inter, where he’s joined by his former Bologna teammate, midfielder Saphir Taider. Algeria are known for pulling off World Cup shocks. Remember they stunned eventual finalists West Germany in 1982, narrowly fell to Brazil in 1986 and held England in 2010.
Russia: After the disappointment he had with England in South Africa, a sensation Fabio Capello has not felt too often over a successful career, will things be better with Russia in Brazil? He’s been impressive enough for there to be a new four-year contract on the table. How so? Well, by making Russia hard to break down. Their defence has been a weakness in the past, but only conceded five goals in qualifying and is now a strength. Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin form a balanced midfield, while their attack is movement-based and can be a handful. Were they to have the Andrey Arshavin of Euro 2008, who inspired them to the semifinals, perhaps there’d be more confidence around them.
South Korea: Two knockout appearances in the past three World Cups suggest we should expect South Korea to get out of their groups. Capable of playing neat and tidy football, there are some fine technicians in the middle of the park, notably Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung and Sunderland’s Ki Sung-Yueng, who can even play as a ball-playing centre-back as he did for Swansea in last season’s League Cup final. The most talented of them all, however, is undoubtedly Son Heung-Min, Bayer Leverkusen’s record transfer, a forward that rivals Japan, bereft of a goal scorer, would surely love to have in their own ranks.
Best individual battle: Eden Hazard vs. Son Heung-Min
How about the 22-year-old golden boy of Belgium’s golden generation, against the aforementioned Son, who is a year younger? Both have great futures ahead of them, but are making the difference for their clubs already in the present. If Hazard is able to make his midweek performance for Chelsea against Sunderland the norm and “take responsibility for his talent” as Jose Mourinho wants him to, then we might see him explode the way Cristiano Ronaldo did at Manchester United. Underestimate Son at your peril. Quick and two-footed, he’s scored six goals in 10 games for Leverkusen so far this season and is utterly ruthless, as demonstrated by the hat trick he netted against former club Hamburg.
Best game: Belgium vs. Russia
This one -- at the Maracana on June 22 -- instantly leaps out at you. These two sides met at the 2002 World Cup and it was a thrilling encounter. Belgium won 3-2, and how poignant is it that current coach Marc Wilmots got what was to prove the clinching goal in the 82nd minute? Will he be able to lead his country to another stunning victory, or will the experience of Capello be the difference? It should be a cracker.
X factor: Staying fresh
This might be the group from which the dark horse truly emerges because as referenced earlier, the start date, the traveling -- or apparent lack of it -- and the favourable temperatures and relatively low humidity will provide the teams who get out of it with something so precious in major tournaments: the real X factor of freshness.
Who will go through? Vote here