The final group, the last four teams. It seems appropriate that it has the potential be fairly open.
It’s not quite a wide open group, as Belgium is a trendy dark horse pick with its bevy of young talent and should qualify for the knockout stages easily.
But after that, it’s anyone’s guess. Russia, under former England boss Fabio Capello, will be difficult to break down but fairly boring to watch. South Korea are a talented side but struggled for cohesion during a lackluster qualifying campaign. Algeria is an outside candidate to escape the group, but failed to score a single goal in the last World Cup.
Whichever team falls into second in this group has an unenviable job with a potential match-up against Group G winner (either Germany or Portugal). Yikes.
This team has talent for days. Fans of the English Premier League will recognize man mountain Romelu Lukaku at striker, Chelsea creator Eden Hazard pulling the strings and defensive anchors Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen — the captains, respectively, of Manchester City and Arsenal. Outside of Brazil and Spain, it’s one of the most talented rosters.
The oldest player listed above? 28. Which is exciting. It’s also a potential problem. This is the first World Cup Belgium has reached since 2002 and the first major international tournament for many of these players. In this group, Belgium should advance with few problems. Further advancement depends on how the talented players coalesce.
How They Got Here: Finished first in Group A of European qualifying
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth place, 1986
After a strong semifinal run in the 2008 Euros, the Russians fell off the international radar failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros. To get the country back on track, control has been handed over to Italian and former England boss Fabio Capello. A pragmatic approach helped get them through its World Cup qualifying group ahead of Portugal.
Under Capello, and using players based primarily in Russia’s domestic league, the team allowed just five goals in qualifying. The defensive pairing of Vasiliy Berezutskiy and Sergei Ignashevich, teammates at CSKA Moscow, are very difficult to break down. In a wide open group, a solid defense and pragmatic approach could be the advantage needed to get through.
How They Got Here: Finished first in Group F of European qualifying
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth place, 1966
The Koreans had a little difficulty in qualifying for the tournament, finishing behind Iran in its Asian group. Former national team defender Hong Myung-bo, considered one of the best Asian soccer stars of all time, took over midway through qualifying to right the ship. A variety of European-based attacking players will lead the way including midfielders Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng and forward Park Chu-young.
The primary concerns are a slightly weak defense and consistency from the top players. Ki and Park spent most of 2013-14 out of favor at their clubs, Swansea and Arsenal respectively. Like the 2002 team Hong led, the team is a fast, counter-attacking team. It will be difficult to out-work this industrious team.
How They Got Here: Finished second in Group A of Asian qualifying
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth place, 2002
It’s best to forget the last World Cup appearance, where they didn’t score a single goal in 2010. But, as many Americans will remember, Algeria gave the U.S. fits during that game. The team this year is, on paper, much improved. Sofiane Feghouli, a 24-year-old winger for Valencia, will be the player to watch. He’s got pace and an eye for goal. Algeria’s offense should run through him.
Madjid Bougherra, the captain, leads a strong and balanced defense. If they can play as a team and keep the games within reach, they might be able to fight through and capture second. Pulling off that feat — and probably scoring a few goals — will likely be enough to consider this year a success.
How They Got Here: Finished first in Group H of African qualifying, defeated Burkina Faso on the away goals tiebreaker in a two-leg playoff.
Best World Cup Finish: Group Stage
Who Will Advance: Belgium, South Korea
Dark Horse: Russia
Glad to be Here: Algeria
Three Players to Watch
Eden Hazard (Belgium): An explosive dribbler, Hazard has been favorably compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. While he doesn’t quite have their flair, he was the leading attacker for an often dynamic (but not nearly dynamic enough) Chelsea attack. He’s had his struggles with the Belgian set-up, but is capable of a breakout tournament.
Son Heung-min (South Korea): He’s got pace, technique and incredible touch with his left foot. (He’s pretty good with his right too.) After a stellar few seasons with Hamburg, Son made a big move to Leverkusen where he scored 10 goals in 29 Bundesliga appearances. Just 21 years old, he still has room to improve.
Aleksandr Kokorin (Russia): Goals could be hard to come by for Russia, but if they come the 23-year-old Dynamo Moscow winger will have a hand in them. He has a knack for finding himself in excellent positions in the box and a nose for goal.
Must Watch Match
Belgium vs. Russia, June 22
One team is flush with amazing-to-watch attackers, the other with an difficult-to-breach defense.