(Photo Courtesy of Taringa)
Manager: Marc Wilmots
Projected Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Daniel Van Buyten, Vincent Kompany (C), Thomas Vermaelen, Alex Witsel, Mousa Dembele, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku. Key Substitutes: Kevin Mirallas, Marouane Fellaini, Nacer Chadli, Adnan Januzaj,
Previous World Cup Experience: Fourth Place in 1986, have not qualified for last two World Cups
Strengths: Abundance of youthful talent
This is the first World Cup for Belgium’s so-called golden generation and they are rightly being considered a dark horse contender in Brazil. It seems like every other young new player to jump into the spotlight in domestic play is Belgian. There is not a player in their starting 11 who does not play for a team that at least challenged for a Champion’s League spot this season, and Belgium has the third most expensive team in the world (behind only Spain and Portugal). Belgium was undefeated in qualifying, scoring 18 goals and conceding only 4, showing that they are well-balanced in both attack and defense. Drawn into a favorable group, Belgium has the potential to move well into the knockout stages if they can keep scoring goals.
Weaknesses: Youth and inexperience
A youthful squad could also turn out to be Belgium’s biggest weakness. No players in the 23-man squad have any previous World Cup experience. As such, the squad will rely heavily on manager Marc Wilmot’s experience, as the former-Belgium man has been to four World Cups as a player. Can the young players that have had so much success individually play collectively and with the maturity required to win a World Cup? We shall see.
Player to Watch: Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku
Hazard has been one of the most electrifying players in Europe this year with a tally of 14 goals for Chelsea and is a major reason that the club was able to challenge for the EPL title. Hopefully rumors of a potential big-money transfer to PSG do not affect his play in Brazil, as the reigning PFA Young Player of the Year could be one of the most exciting players to watch.
Likewise, Romelu Lukaku also enjoyed a strong domestic campaign. On loan at Everton this season, Lukaku netted 16 times even with an ankle injury that took him out of action for over a month. He has been equally as prolific as of late for Belgium, and they will rely heavily on his physicality and versatile scoring ability in Brazil. There are worries that he may not be at full strength for the first match of the tournament after suffering an injury in Belgium’s latest match against Tunisia, but manager Marc Wilmots has reassured the media that it is a minor problem.
Manager: Vahid Halilhodzic
Projected Lineup: (4-4-2) Rais Mbolhi, Carl Medjani, Liassine Cadamuro, Madjid Bougherra (C), Faouzi Ghoualm, Sofiane Feghouli, Nabil Bentaleb, Hassan Yebda, Saphir Taider, Nabil Ghilas, Hilal Soudani
Previous World Cup Experience: Group Stage in 1982, 1986, 2010
Strengths: Experienced defensive unit
Algeria boasts a strong defensive unit with World Cup experience (see Madjid Bougherra) that conceded only 4 goals in qualifying. Their midfielders have a tendency to work very hard defensively and collectively as a group. In the 2010 World Cup finals, Algeria only conceded twice in three matches. If they hope to move out of Group H they will need to rely heavily on this experience and keep the opposition out of the net.
Weaknesses: Ability to score goals
Algeria drew one and lost two (remember Landon Donovan?) of its matches in the 2010 World Cup, scoring zero times. Zero. Though they have not had much trouble scoring in qualifying, their group was fairly weak and they barely squeaked past Burkino Faso in a playoff to reach the World Cup. They may be stout defensively, but in a group with Belgium, Russia and even South Korea, they will be scored on and will need to display some attacking prowess of their own.
Player to Watch: Sofiane Feghouli
Sofiane Feghouli had another impressive season at Valencia where he tallied 4 goals. Algeria will rely heavily on Feghouli to open up opposing defenses with his incisive passes and high work-rate.
Manager: Fabio Capello
Projected Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Igor Akinfeev, Vasily Berezutsky, Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov, Andrei Yeshchenko, Igor Denisov, Alan Dzagoev, Viktor Faizulin, Denis Glushakov, Alexander Kokorin, Alexander Kerzhakov
Previous World Cup Experience: Group Stage in 1994, 2002
Strengths: Collective, disciplined defensive tactics
Capello has at his disposal a disciplined unit that is led by an experienced midfield group that plays high-tempo, pressing football. Capello has implemented his tactics quickly and efficiently since taking over, helped by the fact that his call-ups are predominately Russian-based players and he keeps continuity within the squad. They conceded only 5 times in a qualifying group that included Portugal, showing strong defensive organization led by their goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. Russia was dealt a huge blow this week by losing their captain Roman Shirokov, but expect his replacement to be just as voracious in the center.
Weaknesses: Ageing backline, unspectacular talent
Though Russia played stalwart defense in qualifying, their backline is made of primarily older players. Their center backs lack pace and the rest of the defensive starters have had issues with conceding goals at their respective domestic clubs. With that said, it may be that the tactics employed by Capello play to this group’s strengths and their defensive success will continue in the World Cup.
A more glaring issue, especially for progressing deeper in the tournament, is the lack of well-known talent on this team. Sure, Alan Dzagoev had a great Euro 2012 performance for Russia, and Alexander Kokorin was efficient in front of goal in qualifying, but these players are relatively unknown outside of the domestic league. Without former big name players such as Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrey Arshavin on the roster, can their lesser-known compatriots be counted on in Brazil, especially without World Cup experience?
Player to Watch: Alan Dzagoev, Alexander Kokorin
Dzagoev became a transfer target for a number of big clubs after his performance at Euro 2012, but opted to stay at CSKA Moscow. This decision has surely impacted his growth, as he has not warranted the same transfer attention since. That said, he is still vital to Russia’s attack and will have to be a major factor if they are to advance out of their group.
Kokorin, on the other hand, has just jumped onto the national team scene with a great domestic season. At 23 years of age, he is a young, exciting prospect for Russia (much like Dzagoev in 2012) with goal-scoring ability. He can be employed as the center striker, on the wing, or as a suppressed forward in Russia’s preferred 4-2-3-1, giving Fabio Capello a number of options to set up his team.
Manager: Hong Myung-bo
Projected Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Jung Sung-ryong, Yun Suk-young, Kim Young-gwon, Hong Jeong-ho, Yong Lee, Ki Sung-yong, Kim Bo-kyoung, Koo Ja-cheol, Son Heung-min, Ji Dong-won, Park Chu-young
Previous World Cup Experience: Fourth in 2002, Round of 16 in 2010
Strengths: Speedy attackers, strong World Cup history
South Korea has a rich World Cup history that has seen them qualify for 8 straight tournaments in a notoriously lengthy Asian qualifying campaign. They moved into the knockout stage in 2010 with a string of strong team performances that have become expected from South Korean sides. They rely on a young group of speedy attackers to lead their strikeforce that includes German-based players Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen) and Ji Dong-won (on loan at FC Augsburg).
Weaknesses: Lack of first-team cohesion
South Korea seems to be in a turnover period, as former stars such as Park Ji Sung and Lee Young-Pyo have left the national team picture to be replaced with younger players. As such, it was a tough qualifying campaign (to their lofty standards) in which they lost to Iran twice and Lebanon once, finishing in second only on goal difference over Uzbekistan and causing manager Choi Kang-Hee to resign. 45 different players were given an opportunity during qualifying to make their mark at the national level, showing how difficult it was to find those standout replacements. Now that the World Cup is here, there are questions about first-team cohesion, which is normally South Korea’s biggest strength.
Player to Watch: Son Heung-Min
Son was a strong performer for Bayer Leverkusen this season after transferring for a club record fee from Hamburg, scoring 10 goals and supplying 4 assists. At only 21 years of age, he displays great pace and dribbling ability from a variety of attacking positions. South Korea will rely on his ability to beat defenders and provide quality service to their other forwards, while his ability to score himself is an additional asset that will make him a specific target of the opposition’s defensive strategy.