World Cup Preview: Group H (Algeria, Belgium, Russia and South Korea)

Belgium 2014 World Cup Squad

Belgium’s star studded squad are favourites to top the group.

Algeria | Key men: Sofiane Feghouli, Islam Slimani, Madjid Bougherra

Since winning the African Cup of Nations for the last time in 1990, Algerian fans have had little to cheer about. However, they impressed by overcoming in form Burkina Faso in their play-off game, securing their place at the World Cup this summer, and their fans believe they could progress from the group stages for the first time in their history. Their key player this year is undoubtedly Sofiane Feghouli, the Valencia winger is known for his chance creating ability, and the man expected to finish them off is Islam Slimani of Sporting Lisbon, a strong target man who top-scored in their qualifying group. Ex-Rangers, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday defender Madjid Bougherra captains the side from the back, however he is the only player with over 30 caps in their national side, and this lack of experience could see them fall short. Prediction: 4th

Belgium | Key men: Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois

Marc Wilmots’ men have recently become one of world football’s most talked about teams in recent years, and their current crop of players is perhaps the strongest Belgium squad of all time. Topping Group A comfortably ahead of Croatia and Serbia, they boast quality in every area of the pitch. Champions League finalist Thibaut Courtois is developing into a fine goalkeeper, while Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen have all excelled in defence in the Premier League. Mousa Dembele has been one of Tottenham’s most consistent performers in recent years, and Romelu Lukaku has scored goals for fun on loan at West Brom and Everton, and could feature for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea next season. However, their star man is Lukaku’s teammate, winger Eden Hazard, who has lit up the Premier League over the past two seasons. Their biggest worry is their lack of full-backs, with Vermaelen and Vertonghen often having to play out of position. Despite this, with such strength all over the pitch, Belgium should be capable of winning the group and reaching the competition’s latter stages. Prediction: 1st

Russia | Key men: Igor Akinfeev, Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Kerzhakov

Fabio Capello’s men snatched first place from favourites Portugal in qualifying, largely down to a solid defensive record which saw them only concede five goals in ten games. The recent improvement in quality of the Russian domestic league is reflected in Capello’s squad selection, with every player plying their trade in their homeland. Igor Akinfeev of CSKA Moscow has been one of Europe’s most highly rated goalkeepers in recent years, his teammate Alan Dzagoev also impressed at Euro 2012, finishing the tournament as the joint highest scorer with three goals. Finally, the veteran Aleksandr Kerzhakov is looking to become his nation’s highest post-Soviet goalscorer by netting twice this summer, and despite not featuring as often as he’d have liked for Zenit St Petersburg this season, he still managed an impressive scoring rate of 11 in 16 appearances. Russia will expect to progress from the group, and judging by their defensive strength and qualifying performances they have a significant chance of finishing top. Prediction: 2nd

South Korea | Key men: Son Heung-Min, Ki Sung-Yueng, Koo Ja-Cheol

As fan favourite and former Manchester United man Park Ji-Sung’s career for South Korea drew to a close, a number of talented young players have burst onto the scene. Koo Ja-Cheol managed an impressive 7th place Bundesliga finish with FC Mainz this season, and has been made captain of his national side despite being only 25 years of age. Despite struggling to find the net on a regular basis this season, he often does so for South Korea, contributing goals from midfield. Another goalscorer is Son Heung-Min of Bayer Leverkusen, who is capable of scoring with both feet as well as playing in any attacking role. Stability in midfield is offered by the hard working Ki Sung-Yueng who, despite a slow start to his Swansea career, has impressed on loan at Sunderland this season, helping them survive relegation and reach the League Cup final. Their defence is somewhat inexperienced however, and this could prevent them reaching the knockout stages this summer. Prediction: 3rd

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World Cup Preview: Group G (Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA)

Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo will look to fire Portugal through the groups following his record of 51 goals in 47 games this season.

Germany | Key men: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Philipp Lahm

After scoring more goals in qualifying than any other European team, Germany’s blend of experience and youthful exuberance has worked wonders as they progressed unbeaten from Group C. In 2010 they were eliminated by eventual winners Spain, following convincing wins against England and Argentina. This time round, their hot prospects such as Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Mats Hummels have proven their ability at top clubs, and are considered some of the best players in the world in their respective roles. In the absence of regular starter Mario Gomez through injury, Thomas Muller, who was top scorer in 2010 at the age of 20, will pose a serious goal threat as well as veteran Miroslav Klose, who needs just one goal to move level with Ronaldo as the top scorer in World Cups. With proven quality all over the pitch, it will take something special to stop the Germans. Prediction: 1st

Ghana | Key men: Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Andre Ayew

The Black Stars were faced with a challenging route to Rio, having to overcome 2012 African Cup of Nations winners Zambia in the group stage, followed by Egypt in the play-off. Their 2010 World Cup journey ended prematurely, with Luis Suarez handling the ball on the line and Asamoah Gyan missing the resulting penalty which would have seen them through to the semi-finals. However, their performances were impressive and they were seen by many as the tournament’s biggest overachievers. They boast strength and experience in midfield, with Michael Essien, Sully Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew having played for some of Europe’s largest clubs, however goalscoring may be an issue for Ghana who still rely heavily on Gyan; he has spent the past three seasons in the United Arab Emirates, playing in a substandard league, so whether or not he can still produce on the biggest stage is unknown. Prediction: 4th

Portugal | Key men: Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho, Pepe

Defeat to Russia and failure to beat Israel either at home or away meant that Portugal would have to win a play-off to reach the World Cup this summer. They beat Sweden home and away by one goal in each game to book their place in Rio a little later than they would have liked. Ballon D’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo is without a doubt their key player, having scored 51 goals in 47 games this season he is arguably the best player in the world at the minute. However, Portugal’s issue is their lack of a quality central striker. Despite having a modest career at club level and failing to impress in the Premier League with Tottenham, Helder Postiga has somehow racked up 69 appearances for his national side due to the lack of competition in that position. The goals of Ronaldo should make up for what Postiga lacks however, and with strength in midfield and defence, Portugal should have enough to qualify for the knockout stages. Prediction: 2nd

USA | Key men: Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore

The exclusion of Landon Donovan from the USA squad made the headlines leading up to the tournament, with many fans disagreeing with their coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision, however they will not have been complaining about their performances in qualifying as they finished top of the CONCACAF table. In the absence of Donovan, Clint Dempsey has become the star of their squad, having proven himself over the course of six seasons in the Premier League with Fulham and Tottenham. Although he has struggled to find the net for Sunderland after his move from AZ Alkmaar last summer, their robust striker Jozy Altidore scored some crucial goals towards the end of their qualifying campaign which saw them over the line. Prediction: 3rd

World Cup Preview: Group F (Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria)

 

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Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria will be key attacking players for Argentina this summer.

Argentina | Key men: Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria

Alejandro Sabella’s men finished their qualifying campaign with an impressive 14 game unbeaten run as they stormed to the top of the table after a shaky start. They were not short of firepower up front, with 10 goals from Lionel Messi and 9 from Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain. Sergio Aguero also netted five times, however Sabella seems to have a lot of faith in Messi and Higuain as a partnership, and Aguero might not feature as much as some would expect. Angel Di Maria of Real Madrid was named man of the match in this season’s Champions League final, and has demonstrated his ability to play a central role as well as his usual position on the right wing. They also look stronger at the back this year than they have at recent tournaments, with Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez all enjoying fine seasons at club level. With one of the strongest squads in the tournament, La Albiceleste are rightly considered among the favourites. Prediction: 1st

Bosnia and Herzegovina | Key men: Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begovic, Miralem Pjanic

Having been drawn into one of Europe’s easiest qualifying groups, Bosnia and Herzegovina made light work of most of their opponents, with only Germany, Holland and England scoring more than their total of 30 goals. Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko scored ten in ten, and Vedad Ibisevic of Stuttgart managed eight; the Bosnians certainly know how to score goals. Their defence was almost as impressive, conceding a mere six. Miralem Pjanic qualified for the Champions League with Roma after a fine season which saw them finish second in the league, as he emerges as one of Europe’s hottest young midfielders. A fairly balanced side with two prolific goalscorers, they will be expecting to progress to the knockout stages. Prediction: 2nd

Iran | Key men: Javad Nekounam, Ashkan Dejagah, Andranik Teymourian

Currently managed by Carlos Queiroz, the former Portugal boss and assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Iran qualified for Brazil 2014 with an impressive away win over South Korea in their final game. Defeats against Uzbekistan and Lebanon meant that they needed a win in Ulsan, and thankfully Reza Ghoochannejhad of Charlton Athletic’s third of the qualifying group sealed their progress. Javad Nekounam remains their key creative outlet; with 175 appearances for La Liga side Osasuna he is Iran’s most experienced player and captains the side. Finally, despite Fulham’s relegation, Ashkan Dejagah impressed on a number of occasions for the Cottagers, scoring 5 times in his 22 league appearances this season. Although they are widely expected to struggle, Iran have managed at least a point in all three of their previous World Cup appearances and will be hoping to at least emulate that feat. Prediction: 4th

Nigeria | Key men: John Obi Mikel, Vincent Enyeama, Victor Moses

The current African champions may well have had the easiest qualification route of all the teams playing in Brazil this summer. They faced Malawi, Kenya, Namibia in their group, followed by a play-off against Ethiopia; all four teams are ranked outside the top 100 nations by FIFA. What will concern their manager Stephen Keshi is that they slipped to a draw once against each of their group opponents, and scored a mere 11 goals in those 8 games against vastly inferior opponents. John Obi Mikel of Chelsea provides stability for the Eagles in midfield, while his teammate Victor Moses is also a strong performer for the national team. He, alongside the likes of Emmanuel Emenike of Fenerbahce and CSKA Moscow’s Ahmed Musa will need to improve their scoring form against stronger opponents if they are to have any chance of progressing to the knockout rounds. Prediction: 3rd

World Cup Preview: Group E (Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland)

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France’s Franck Ribery won the Champions League last season with Bayern Munich.

Ecuador | Key men: Antonio Valencia, Jefferson Montero, Felipe Caicedo

Unbeaten at home during qualifying, Ecuador would have qualified with ease if they were able to replicate that form on the road, as they managed not a single away win. Their qualification is even more impressive considering they had to deal with the tragedy of star striker Christian “Chucho” Benitez’s death last summer. Reinaldo Rueda and his players rallied round and produced an impressive fourth place finish, which they dedicated to Benitez, who himself contributed four goals in the early stages of the campaign. Although Antonio Valencia has not been at his best this season for Manchester United, Jefferson Montero of Monarcas Morelia and ex-Man City man Felipe Caicedo are finding the net regularly for their country. Having been placed in one of the more open groups, Ecuador certainly have a chance of progressing, but they will need strong performances from their front three. Prediction: 2nd

France | Key men: Franck Ribery, Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena

Despite having an enormous amount of players with experience at the top level, the French disappointed in South Africa four years ago, failing to win a game just as they did back in 2002. Having been placed in a qualifying group with European and world champions Spain, they did well to only slip to one defeat and secure second place. They were shocked by Ukraine in the play-off first leg, and fell to a 2-0 loss in Kiev, however they progressed following a 3-0 home victory. They currently have a good mix of youth and experience, with Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane featuring regularly despite their young age. Franck Ribery is enjoying yet another fantastic season at Bayern Munich, however Karim Benzema has performed poorly for France recently, and Olivier Giroud seems to have been distracted by off the field issues; this could open the door for Loic Remy, who has been in fine form for Newcastle this season. Prediction: 1st

Honduras | Key men: Wilson Palacios, Jerry Bengtson, Emilio Izaguirre

With a manager placing faith in young talent, Honduras qualified impressively with an excellent home record, as well as beating Mexico on the road. MLS star Jerry Bengtson scored regularly in qualifying with 9 goals to his name, while Carlo Costly, who had an unsuccessful spell at Birmingham City in 2009, netted 7. Wilson Palacios remains at the heart of their midfield, and despite not featuring very often for Stoke City this season, he has performed well for his country when called upon. Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre provides an attacking threat from left-back, often overlapping his winger, and reads the game well enough not to get caught out. This World Cup may be one too soon for Honduras, but expect stronger performances in the future. Prediction: 4th

Switzerland | Key men: Xherdan Shaqiri, Ricardo Rodriguez, Diego Benaglio

Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland had one of the easier qualifying groups due to their high seeding, however they didn’t look comfortable for most of the campaign, slipping to draws against Norway, Iceland and most surprisingly international minnows Cyprus. They also have lacked a regular goalscorer since Alexander Frei’s retirement in 2011, with centre-back Fabian Schar top scoring for them with only three; perhaps more worryingly, they don’t have a single current international who has scored more than ten goals for his country. However, where Switzerland excel is in defence. They are often criticised for their negative tactics, but in 2010 they broke the record for the longest time without conceding a goal in World Cup matches. Despite this, their lack of goals will make it difficult for them to progress. Prediction: 3rd

World Cup Preview: Group D (Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay)

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Andrea Pirlo of Italy is only getting better with age.

Costa Rica | Key men: Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz, Keylor Navas

Sealing their World Cup spot with two games to spare, Jorge Luis Pinto’s men find themselves in a very tough looking group, hoping to upset the odds. Bryan Ruiz may lack consistency however on his day he can pose a real threat to opponents, as he showed during his spell at Fulham, while Joel Campbell netted a brace in the Champions League for Olympiakos against United earlier this year. Keylor Navas is a name you more than likely won’t have heard before, however he has performed incredibly for Levante this season and is being recognised by Spanish football experts as one of the finest goalkeepers in the world at the moment. Despite this, Los Ticos lack strength in defence, and Navas most likely won’t be able to keep the likes of Suarez, Balotelli and Rooney at bay. Prediction: 4th

England | Key men: Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling

Roy Hodgson’s England had a tougher qualifying journey than they might have liked, slipping up on a number of occasions against the likes of Poland and Ukraine. However, there is cause for optimism, as a Liverpool side littered with English talent are currently sat top of the Premier League, and are favourites to take the title. Steven Gerrard is playing some of his best football of the past few years, while Sturridge and Sterling are looking the real deal, scoring regularly and causing defenders problems with both pace and skill. The absence of Theo Walcott initially was concerning, however Sterling’s form would most likely have seen him start ahead of the Arsenal man anyway. Prediction: 2nd

Italy | Key men: Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Mario Balotelli

The Italians qualified unbeaten from a group containing Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, and look a real force under Cesare Prandelli who also led them to the final of Euro 2012. The four time World Cup winners have an enormous pool of talented players matched by very few nations, and their squad will include Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo who won the tournament in 2006. Their strength particularly in midfield is impressive, with Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo all deserving of a place in the starting eleven. Their enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli has the potential to cause real damage, and his performances will be key. Prediction: 1st

Uruguay | Key men: Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan

The two-time winners got off to a disastrous start in qualifying, failing to win in their first six games despite winning the Copa America immediately beforehand. They clawed their way back into fifth spot and overcame Jordan in a play-off game, but they certainly haven’t been at their best in the past couple of years. That said, any team with Luiz Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan up top cannot be underestimated, and although they lack that sort of strength in midfield, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin at centre-back and Fernando Muslera of Galatasaray are very capable at the highest level. Oscar Tabarez will need to get the most out of his star players if Uruguay are to progress to the knockout rounds. Prediction: 3rd

World Cup Preview: Group C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)

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Colombia’s Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez could fire Colombia into the latter stages of the competition.

Colombia | Key men: Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Fredy Guarin

Jose Nestor Pekerman’s side have emerged as a real dark horse for the upcoming tournament, conceding the fewest goals of any South American side in qualifying, as well as finding the net 27 times. This has seen them rise to fourth in the FIFA World Rankings, and they are now the continent’s highest ranked team. Not only are they defensively solid, they have one of the world’s most dangerous forwards in Radamel Falcao, who has recently been declared fit for the tournament after an injury scare. His Monaco teammate James Rodriguez can play on either wing or behind the striker, and is considered by Colombians as the Carlos Valderrama of the future. Clear favourites for top spot in their group. Prediction: 1st

Greece | Key men: Kostas Mitroglou, Giorgos Karagounis, Dimitrios Salpingidis

Despite accumulating 25 points from 10 qualifying games, the Greeks missed out on top spot to Bosnia-Herzegovina by virtue of goal difference. They continued their excellent form and overcame Romania in a play-off to earn their spot in Group C. The experienced duo of Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis are still present in midfield and are as tenacious and dedicated as ever, while Kostas Mitroglou and Dimitrios Salpingidis are both capable goalscorers. Unfortunately for Mitroglou, arguably the more prolific of the two, his £12 million January transfer to Fulham has been unsuccessful, having only played twice in the past few months without scoring a goal. Prediction: 4th

Ivory Coast | Key men: Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Gervinho

The Elephants didn’t have too much trouble dealing with their initial qualifying group, and overcame Senegal in a more closely-fought play-off fixture. Following the heartbreak of defeat on penalties in the African Cup of Nations final against surprise package Zambia, the fans will be hoping that they can progress from one of the tournament’s easier looking groups. Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure offer both ability and experience, while Gervinho has recovered from an unsuccessful spell at Arsenal and become a useful attacking outlet at Roma. Prediction: 2nd

Japan | Key men: Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw the Japanese progress impressively from Group E with wins over Cameroon and Denmark, both of whom were ranked significantly higher than them in FIFA’s system. After being knocked out by Paraguay in the round of 16, Alberto Zaccheroni took over as head coach, and despite a turbulent start they found form just in time to secure qualification. Shinji Kagawa has proven his ability when given the chance in recent years, and they also boast some of the world’s finest free-kick takers among their ranks, namely Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo. Prediction: 3rd

World Cup Preview: Group B (Australia, Chile, Holland, Spain)

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Spain were victorious in South Africa four years ago.

Australia | Key men: Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Lucas Neill

Following a stuttering qualifying campaign, the Socceroos now have to contest Group B with three sides ranked in FIFA’s top 15 nations. The retirement of Mark Schwarzer has opened the door for a new young goalkeeper to emerge as the nation’s number one, with Mathew Ryan getting the nod over Adam Federici and Mitchell Langerak in recent fixtures. This summer is likely to be the last time Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill and Mark Bresciano feature in a World Cup, and despite being placed in one of the most challenging groups, they will be looking to go out on a high. Prediction: 4th

Chile | Key men: Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Mauricio Isla

The Chileans’ 2-0 win over England at Wembley will have caught the eye of many fans, however they have been playing expansive, attacking football for a number of years now, with some success. Jorge Sampaoli took charge halfway through qualifying and transformed the side into one of international football’s most exciting teams. Alexis Sanchez has had an impressive season at Barcelona, while Juventus’s Arturo Vidal has proven himself as one of the world’s best midfielders. They will have to remain defensively responsible against the stronger teams in the group however, particularly the wing-backs Mauricio Isla and Jean Beausejour. Prediction: 3rd

Holland | Key men: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder

The finalists of 2010 may have collapsed at the 2012 European Championship, however they qualified for Brazil 2014 with an almost-perfect record, slipping to a draw in one single match and scoring the most goals, joint with Germany, of any team in Europe. Having only recently become a regular fixture in the Dutch side, Kevin Strootman’s injury will rule him out of the tournament, and Robin van Persie has struggled with fitness and form throughout the season. Furthermore, their defence looks the weakest it has done in a number of years. The Dutch are up against it in a tough group, however they should have the firepower to see off Australia and Chile. Prediction: 2nd

Spain | Key men: Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Ramos

Current world and European champions Spain need no introduction. Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso are central to their tiki-taka style of play, and that is unlikely to change, however Vicente Del Bosque is likely to mix things around up top. The indifferent form of Fernando Torres and David Villa has coincided with Alvaro Negredo’s strong performances for Manchester City, and Diego Costa becoming eligible for Spain. The latter is ahead of Lionel Messi in terms of goals scored in La Liga, and only one behind Cristiano Ronaldo, and offers more of a physical presence up front than Spain have had in recent years. However, as they showed in the Euros, they can win without a striker on the pitch, so we may see a 4-6-0 formation once again. Ramos and Pique form a very strong partnership which will give Jordi Alba at left-back plenty of freedom to join the attack. However, after losing convincingly to Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup, they face their toughest challenge yet in retaining the trophy and will have to be in their best form yet. Prediction: 1st