There aren’t many teams at the World Cup who can boast players the calibre of the best goalkeeper in La Liga, the captains of the Premier League champions, the FA Cup winners, two of the world’s most expensive midfielders, the main creative and goal scoring threat of Chelsea, one of the most feared strikers in England and arguably the most exciting teenager in the entire tournament.
It’s a list of credentials that feels as if it should belong to a team with more World Cups than they can count but instead all of those players will turn out for Belgium, at their first World Cup in 12 years and never having gone better than fourth, in 1986.
Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Adnan Januzaj aren’t even where Belgium’s riches end. Kevin Mirallas is coming off a fine season with Everton, Dries Martens likewise with Napoli. The defence is more of a concern as form goes but Toby Alderweireld, although a bit-part player at Atletico Madrid, is now also a league champion and Champions League finalist.
There is a distinct lack of full-backs available to Marc Wilmots, at least at a level of quality comparable with the rest of the squad. But that a minor negative compared to the long list of positives. For a nation with a population of just over 11m and once described by Charles de Gaulle as a country invented by the British to annoy the French, World Cup success is tantalisingly in reach.
Algeria are the first to try and tame the Red Devils. Vahid Halilhodzic can call on a couple of players of note but it’s hard to escape the impression that simply avoiding bottom place in the group would be a success for the Desert Warriors. Sofiane Feghouli and Nabil Bentaleb, of Valencia and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, could form an intriguing combination in midfield, the former a fine creative type and the latter a rangy, athletic ball-winner.
But it’s really two out of three to see who goes through to the next round and so the outcome of Russia’s game against South Korea is pivotal. Fabio Capello’s entirely home-based squad is heavy in experience but light on goals. If he plays in every group game then Sergei Ignashevich will reach 100 caps and plenty of his teammates are past the half-century. Goals are much harder to come by. Aleksandr Kerzhakov is the only Russian in double figures, with 25 goals in 81 games.
South Korea could give a run-out to the lesser-spotted Arsenal forward Park Chu-Young, the top scorer in the squad, but the meeting with Russia pits one of the least experienced World Cup Coaches, Hong Myung-bo, against one of the most, in Capello. The group couldn’t begin with a more important game for the Taegeuk Warriors and if experience counts for anything, it will be Capello’s Russia on Belgium’s coattails.