Russia are an intriguing package, being led into this tournament by former England head coach Fabio Capello, and boasting one of the few entirely home-based squads. Despite a disastrous defeat against Northern Ireland in Belfast and a disappointing draw in Azerbaijan, they qualified at the top of a tricky group ahead of Portugal, thanks mainly to a 100% home record.
However, they suffered a major blow when captain Roman Shirokov finally succumbed to an Achilles tendon injury that has been plaguing him through most of this year, and was ruled out of the finals. Shirokov’s absence, as one of the few genuinely creative players they possess, allied to Capello’s notoriously conservative tactics, could mean that while Russia will be very difficult to beat, they might struggle to break down opponents themselves.
Much will depend on the performances of Zenit St Petersburg’s prolific striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov. He top scored in qualifying, including a vital winner against Portugal and is the one genuine goal threat in the Russian’s arsenal.
Belgium, by contrast, are seen as one of the flair teams in Europe at present, and are capable of lighting up the World Cup with their attacking play. Expectations will be played down, but having breezed undefeated through qualification, the Red Devils have serious dark horse potential.
There are concerns over the fitness of Romelu Lukaku after he exited last week’s friendly against Tunisia with injury, but coach Marc Wilmots has plenty of other options at his disposal. Attention will be on Manchester United’s teenager livewire Adnan Januzaj, who after much wrangling has finally decided to represent the country of his birth.
Bossed imposingly from the back by Manchester City Premier League-winning captain Vincent Kompany with attacks orchestrated by Chelsea talent Eden Hazard, the Red Devils appear to be a serious threat, and after progressing through the group, not many teams will relish facing them in the knock-out stages.
South Korea, semi-finalists on home turf in 2002, will fancy their chances of progressing from this group too. Hong Myung-bo, captain of that famous 2002 team, is now in the dugout, and he brings a young and potentially exciting squad to Brazil – defender Kwak Tae-hwi is the only player over the age of 30.
They scraped through qualification, but have a number of European-based players whose experience will be vital, particularly in the matches against Belgium and Russia. They will look to their influential captain Ku Ja-cheol of Mainz 05 for inspiration and direction from midfield.
The Koreans will be hoping this turns out to be the break-out tournament for Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min. The rangy forward has shown flashes of brilliance, and while yet to command a regular starting spot for his country, some vital goals as an impact player have illustrated his match-winning potential.
Algeria likewise have a number of European-based players in their squad, and will be written off at the peril of their more fancied opponents. At the very least they will hope to improve on their 2010 showing when they crashed out of the finals without finding the net even once.
French-born captain Majid Bougherra is a towering presence, uncompromising and tough-tackling, he will be relied upon to keep the defence in shape and give the young attackers the platform to spring a shock or two.
Key among the forward players will be Sporting’s Islam Slimani, who finished the Portuguese season in fine scoring form, including a winner against major rivals Porto, and will hit the tournament brimming with confidence.
The two European teams will be the favourites to progress from this group, but against seriously testing opponents their progression is far from assured.
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