Teams (world ranking in brackets): Belgium (11), Algeria (26), Russia (22), Korea Republic (54)
Belgium vs Algeria, Belo Horizonte
Russia vs Korea Republic, Cuiaba
Belgium vs Russia, Rio de Janeiro
Korea Republic vs Algeria, Porto Alegre
Korea Republic vs Belgium, Sao Paulo
Algeria vs Russia, Curitiba
Coach: Marc Wilmots
Captain: Vincent Kompany
World Cup Appearances: 11 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002)
Best Result: Fourth Place (1986)
Qualified: 1st Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Kevin de Bruyne (4)
Belgium return to the world stage after a 12-year absence with one of their best ever teams. They cruised through qualifying with two draws (one against Wales after qualification was sealed) the only blips. The Belgians only conceded 4 times throughout their ten matches.
In their side the Belgians have many players at some of the world’s biggest clubs. Winger Eden Hazard has been in great form with Chelsea, and already has 44 caps at just 23. Striker Romelu Lukaku has been consistently loaned out by Chelsea, but he has always thrived. Thibaut Courtois is making a name for himself as one of the best keepers in the world, having beaten Iker Casillas to the mantle of best goalkeeper in Spain two years in a row. Backed up with a solid defence of captain Vincent Kompany, Daniel van Buyten, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen amongst others, it is hard to see Belgium conceding too many goals.
One reason for the Belgians success has been the great young players in the squad, but inexperience may now shape up as a big issue for Belgium. Only van Buyten has played at a world cup before, and while he brings a lot of experience, no-one else in the squad has over 60 caps, although a few are hanging around that mark. Courtois may be excellent in the league, but how he can handle the pressure of a world cup will be an important test for the 22-year old, and a lot will rest on his success or failure.
Coach: Vahid Halilhodzic
Captain: Madjid Bougherra
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1982, 1986, 2010)
Best Result: Group Stage (1982, 1986, 2010)
Qualified: 1st Group H, went on to defeat Burkina Faso in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Islam Slimani (5)
Algeria cruised through to the play-offs, with an early loss to Mali the only flaw. They were drawn to play Burkina Faso in the play-offs, and a late Aristide Bance penalty in Ouagadougou gave Burkina Faso a 3-2 first-leg win. Algeria were, however, able to qualify on away goals with a 49th minute goal to Madjid Bougherra giving them a 1-0 home win.
Many great young players have entered the Algerian side since the 2010 world cup, many in midfield and attack, both areas severely lacking during the tournament. Sofiane Feghouli and Saphir Sliti Taider will control the midfield, and will be ably supported in that role by Mehdi Lacen and Hassan Yebda. 19-year old Spurs midfielder Nabil Bentaleb has shown a lot of promise. Islam Slimani was prolific up front in qualifying, and El Arbi Soudani will help him up front. Players like Carl Medjani and Bougherra bring experience to the defence.
The side is still very young, and Bougherra is the only squad member to have more than 30 caps, and he is currently unattached after leaving Lekhwiya, who aren’t a high-profile club, in May. 13 of the 23 players named in the Algerian squad have under 20 international caps, and this lack of experience will be a problem when playing against more experienced sides like Russia and Belgium. First-choice keeper Rais M’Bohli plays for CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, and he does not have a lot of experience playing against the best in the world.
Coach: Fabio Capello
Captain: Vasili Berezutski
World Cup Appearances: 2 (1994, 2002)
Best Result: Group Stage (1994, 2002)
Qualified: 1st Group F
Qualification Top Scorer: Aleksandr Kerzhakov (5)
Russia took advantage of some poor early results from Portugal to claim first place by a point despite losses to Northern Ireland and the Portuguese. In the end they qualified with a 1-1 draw in the last game against Azerbaijan, after Roman Shirokov’s early strike was cancelled out by Vagif Javadov.
The Russians are very solid and experienced in the centre of defence, with CSKA Moskva’s Igor Akinfeev in goal. He is backed up well by Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, and Dmitry Kombarov provides great run from left-back. Yuri Zhirkov, Igor Denisov and Alan Dzagoev make for a strong midfield, and support is provided by Viktor Fayzulin, Denis Glushakov and Aleksandr Samedov. Aleksandr Kerzhakov brings lots of experience to the team, and he will form a great partnership with Aleksandr Kokorin.
While the side is very strong, some key names have been left out. Aleksandr Anyukov and Aleksei Berezutski, who each have over 50 caps and provide valuable experience in the fullback positions, have been left out, leaving the less experienced Kombarov and an even less experienced fullback, such as Andrey Yeshchenko or Aleksei Kozlov, to fill two key positions. Shirokov is out of the side injured, taking away valuable experience, and Andrei Arshavin’s international retirement has done the same, leaving the Russians with a lot of inexperienced players.
Coach: Hong Myung-Bo
Captain: Koo Ja-Cheol
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Fourth Place (2002)
Qualified: 2nd Group A
Qualification Top Scorer: Park Chu-Young (6)
The South Koreans comfortably passed the third round of AFC qualifying, finishing first with only one loss. They only just scraped through to the world cup, however, claiming second on goal difference over Uzbekistan. This came despite Iran beating them 1-0 and the Uzbeks beating Qatar 5-1 on the final match day.
The Korean midfield is very strong, with players like Kim Bo-Kyung, Ki Sung-Yueng, Koo Ja-Cheol and Lee Chung-Yong who are experienced and playing against some of Europe’s best. Son Heung-Min has received some regular game time with Bayer Leverkusen this season, and he will be valuable on the left wing. Park Chu-Young and Lee Keun-Ho were very strong in qualifying, and each bring lots of experience to the side. Ji Dong-Won, whose work up front for Augsburg has been so impressive Borussia Dortmund have signed him, will provide great support.
Many of the players in the side have not played in the world cup before, with only 5 current players (Kim Bo-Kyung, Park Chu-Young, Ki Sung-Yeung, Lee Chung-Yong and keeper Jung Sung-Ryong) having played at the tournament before. The loss of former captain Park Ji-Sung has taken away lots of experience, and the young squad could benefit from someone like Lee Dong-Gook or Kim Nam-Il (with 99 and 98 caps respectively) being in the team to add some more experience. The defence may also struggle, with no-one at big clubs or with many international caps.
Expect this group to be interesting, as none of the sides are overly experienced. I think the Belgians are ready to shine at this tournament, and I would expect them to take first. Expect a close battle between the other teams for second place.
1. Belgium, 2. Russia, 3. Algeria, 4. Korea Republic
Next: I wrap up my preview by predicting who will win the 2014 FIFA World Cup.