There’s no beating around the bush: Group H has been unanimously touted as the weakest group at this summer’s World Cup. With no true footballing great, at first glance the group looks uninteresting.
But when you dig a little deeper, it actually promises to be quite exciting. Belgium have exploded onto the international scene with a golden generation of players, and the other three teams in Group H are all fairly well-matched.
It might not be the most glamorous of groups, but it could provide some of the best action.
Here are your Group H contenders:
Belgium (Ranked 11th in FIFA’s World Ranking)
To the casual football fan, Belgium have come out of absolutely nowhere. Having only made it past the round-of-16 once in their history, the Belgians will have many people quite surprised at the calibre of their team.
But for the obsessed football fan, Belgium’s rise to prominence has been a long time coming. Despite having not made an appearance in the World Cup since 2002, the Diables Rouges (Red Devils) have made monumental improvements to their team over the last decade.
Belgium has produced world-class player after world-class player, creating a “golden generation” for the country in the process. With players like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku, there is an abundance of quality from back to front in the Belgian side.
Manager Marc Wilmots is spoilt for choice with the players at his disposal, and his job may be the most important of all. The talent is there for Belgium, but it will be up to the manager to keep the team motivated, but also composed. It remains to be seen whether Belgium’s group of stars can handle the pressure of a World Cup. If they can, they’ll take some stopping.
Player to watch: Belgium’s current generation of players are phenomenal, but none are moreso than creative winger Eden Hazard. The Belgian truly stepped out of Juan Mata’s shadow this season at Chelsea and firmly established himself as one of the Premier League’s best players. He can score and create in equal measure, and although Belgium’s leadership will come from Vincent Kompany at the back, their success up front will be heavily influenced by the magic of Hazard.
Predicted group finish: First place. Belgium’s first World Cup in 12 years couldn’t possibly have been more favourable than it has turned out to be. Group H, with all due respect to the other teams, should be a walk in the park for a team with the world-class talent that Belgium has. They’ll be in the knock-out rounds, you can bet your house on it.
Predicted overall finish: They’ll breeze through this round, but with Germany or Portugal up next, it’ll be tricky for the Belgians to go any further. They certainly have the capability of doing so, but with a lack of experience at the World Cup, and with a group that may leave them complacent, they’ll probably fall short in the round-of-16. That’s not to say that they can’t go farther, because they’re a dark horse for the whole thing, but in all likelihood, this World Cup will end for them before the quarter-finals.
Algeria (Ranked 22nd in FIFA’s World Ranking)
Algeria are a prime example of why, despite the lack of hype, Group H is very, very interesting. Having already been dismissed by so many people, the Algerians are poised to strike a surprising blow to one or two of their competitors.
In the footballing world, they are far from a household name; Algeria has appeared in only four World Cups in their history, and have never reached the knock-out rounds of the tournament. But if they ever had a chance to make history for their country, now is certainly the time.
Algerian players have been quietly imposing themselves at some of Europe’s famous clubs: Porto, Napoli, Valencia, Tottenham and Udinese (just to name a few) all have an Algerian player with a role in or around their first team squad. Of their 23-man squad, only two players (both of whom are goalkeepers) are still playing their football in Algeria. They may not instantly draw the eyes of football fans, but Algeria’s players have been imposing themselves all across Europe.
With one of the youngest squads in the tournament (only one player is over the age of 30), Algeria have a team full of players eager to show the world what they’ve got. Russia and South Korea will likely underestimate the Algerians, and they would do so to their own detriment. They’re no Belgium, but they are more than a match for the other two teams that Group H has to offer.
Player to watch: The youngest man on an incredibly young squad, Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb burst onto the international scene when he made his début for his country in February 2014. The 19-year-old has since made two more caps, scoring another goal just days ago in Algeria’s friendly against Romania. The midfielder enjoyed a breakthrough season for Tottenham under manager Tim Sherwood, and despite his age and only boasting a couple of caps for his country, he could be a key part of a very young Algerian team.
Predicted group finish: The Algerians are one of the most underrated teams at the tournament this summer. Despite being written off by almost everybody, they’re actually a quite interesting team. Had they been in a harder group, it would make sense to dismiss their chances of making it to the knock-out rounds, but in Group H, they actually might just have what it takes. Of course, they could also easily get eliminated – but don’t write them off just yet, they might surprise you.
Russia (Ranked 19th in FIFA’s World Ranking)
Russia’s reputation, to put it bluntly, far exceeds their history. Many football fans regard Russia as a solid European team – but the history books clearly suggest otherwise. If you take only their achievements into consideration, the Russians are relative minnows in the footballing world.
Many people remember Russia’s surprising semifinal run in Euro 2008, but this feat was clearly an anomaly for the Russians. Russia has never made it out of the group stage at a World Cup, and that Euro 2008 semifinal appearance was the only time they’ve managed to do so in a Euro Cup.
They come into this World Cup after missing the previous two, and Group H will provide them with their best chance of ending their knock-out round drought. Russia will go head-to-head with Algeria and South Korea in a battle for second spot, and although they have the bigger name, they’ll fall short if they buy into their own hype.
Incredibly, they are the only country at the World Cup to bring a squad comprised 100 per cent from domestic-based players. In other words, every single player that Russia has brought to the World Cup is currently playing their football in Russia. This could prove either an advantage (their players are all relatively familiar with one another) or could put Russia at a disadvantage (the Russian league isn’t among the world’s best) – the truth remains to be seen. Russia, however, would be smart to be wary of their competitors. Complacency would mean elimination.
Player to watch: Striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov is the danger man up top for the Russians. Boasting almost as many international goals as the rest of the squad’s midfielders and forwards combined, he is the one who will be tasked with putting the ball in the back of the net. There’s a lot of pressure on him to deliver, because if he isn’t scoring, it’s hard to see who will be.
Predicted group finish: Again, this is a team that could come out in second place in this group. Matches against Algeria and South Korea will be crucial, and if the Russians can get Kerzhakov firing, they may have a place in the knock-out rounds. If not, they’ll probably drop out early.
South Korea (Ranked 57th in FIFA’s World Ranking)
South Korea may not have the football appeal of many of the world’s bigger nations, but the truth is that the South Koreans have achieved considerable recent success for a country not regarded as one of football’s elite.
They are appearing in a staggering eight consecutive World Cup – a remarkable achievement that, despite the qualifying group that they come from, should not be forgotten. Better yet, they’ve made it into the knock-out rounds in two of their last three appearances. In 2010 they were put out in the round-of-16, and nobody will forget their charge to the semifinal when they co-hosted the tournament in 2002.
Despite their perceived lack of quality, the South Koreans actually have more World Cup experience and success than a fair few of the teams competing in Brazil this summer. When looking at their squad, it is easy to see why they’ve managed to compete. Much like Algeria, South Korea has players involved in club football all across Europe; Germany and Britain in particular have become homes to some of the country’s biggest stars.
The “Taegeuk Warriors” are a creative, attractive football team. Sending their stars across the globe has clearly had the desired effect – South Korea has an interesting group of established and respected players attackers and midfielders. They could use some bolstering defensively, but they could prove to be a huge challenge for Russia and Algeria, and in the battle for second place, the South Koreans could come out on top.
Player to watch: The undoubted star of South Korea is Bayer Leverkusen man Son Heung-Min. The attacker, who moved to Leverkusen from Hamburger SV this past summer, is a stand-out player in an impressive Bundesliga side. He’s a tricky forward who is equally capable with both feet, and can play either up top, or behind the striker. If South Korea can build their offence around him, they have a fighting chance in this group.
Predicted group finish: Like the two previous teams, anywhere from second to fourth could be possible. While Belgium is the clear favourite for the group, the other three teams are actually fairly balanced. South Korea has a good amount of players plying their trade at European clubs, and for good reason. If their offence clicks, they could do some damage in this group.