2014 World Cup Brazil: Group H Preview

June 9, 2014

Sometimes it’s hard to convince skeptical fans that a particularly group will be interesting to watch, especially when a team that hasn’t been to a World Cup in 12 years is the favorite to win. Such is the case with Group H, which has the distinction of being the group that will provide opponents to Group G’s knockout stage participants but doesn’t offer much else.

However, this could be one of the most hotly contested groups in the entire tournament. Who knows how the young Belgium squad will respond the big stage, and the other three teams will try to earn points through defensive tactics.

Let’s take a look at Group H as we put a bow wrap on Around The Corn’s group-by-group World Cup previews.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Thibaut Courtois, Belgium goalkeeper

You might not hear the announcers call his name all that often, but chances are the 22-year old keeper could be leading the tournament with clean sheets at the end of group play. Courtois was the man behind the action up front during Atlético Madrid’s 2013 La Liga title, and he is a big reason why the Belgian squad feels comfortable pushing offensively with its talent at forward and midfield. During qualification, Courtois faced eight on-target shots within 15 yards of the net and stopped seven of them.

All three of Belgium’s opponents employ a defensive style of play, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Courtois with three clean sheets in as many contests. But looking forward, if Belgium is to make it out of group play Courtois is the main reason why the Red Devils could give opponents trouble in the knockout stage.

Alexander Kokorin, Russia forward

If there is any difference between a player to watch and a breakout star of the tournament, the 23-year old Kokorin would be in line for both distinctions. Dubbed “the future of Russian football”, Kokorin is a smart forward that is very careful about the shots he chooses to take. In qualification, he scored on four of his 16 shots and was the second leading scorer for the Russia side. Playing in a system that preaches defense above all else, Kokorin won’t get a ton of chances so it’s encouraging that he makes the best of the ones he gets.

At some point during group play Russia is going to realize it needs to score in order to pick up enough points to advance. When that time comes, expect Kokorin to be one of two men the squad relies on to get the job done.

They’ll Move On If…

Algeria – The defense holds all opponents to without any goals and enough cannibalization occurs throughout the rest of group play that somehow three points is enough to secure 2H. Algeria was one of two squads held without a goal in the 2010 World Cup and even the strong play of striker Islam Slimani likely won’t overcome the decision to bring as many men back to defend as possible. Put simply, a lot of help will be needed for Algeria to advance.

Belgium – The young players at up front and at midfield play well enough together to punch holes in some really feisty defenses. There is no denying that Belgium has the best offensive presence of any squad in the group, but Russia and South Korea (and even Algeria for that matter) are relentless in the back. Two goals will likely be enough to win any game during group play, but that could be a lot to ask if the team doesn’t gel well immediately.

Russia – The defense does what it showed capable of doing during qualification. This is one of the few teams in the world that proved to have the ability to shut down Cristiano Ronaldo, and there isn’t anyone nearly as talented individually in this group. Belgium will be a test, but chances are Russia has the personnel to move on barring a collapse.

South Korea – This squad can find a way to play together and it simply outworks the opposition. Usually it’s a good thing when 11 different players score during qualification, but for South Korea it’s more a result of the fact that it still hasn’t seemed to settle on a starting lineup. The World Cup is rarely the stage to experiment with that type of thing, so unless this side can advance on pure grit and hard work, it’ll need to experience some good luck.

Most Crucial Matches

Russia vs. South Korea (June 17, 6 PM ET)

Who will blink first? Both of these teams would probably be content with a point in their first match, but the reality is that it puts a lot of strain on each to come up with something against Belgium in the case of a draw. Russia has some firepower up front, but they seldom use it liberally. South Korea wants to try to make teams pay for being overly aggressive, but the chance to score on a counterattack may be few and far between against the Russians. It wouldn’t be surprising to see this game end 1-0 and if a team does manage to walk out of Arena Pantanal with three points, it’ll be in the driver’s seat for Group H.

Belgium vs. Russia (June 22, 12 PM ET)

Not even a week after its important showdown with South Korea, Russia gets to take on the group favorite. This one should be a fun contest, albeit another chess match to see who is going to make the first defensive mistake that leads to an easy opportunity. In this game we’ll find out two things: just how good Belgium’s attack is and the true strength of Russia’s defense. While the fate of each squad will still be in the balance, this game should shed some light on whether Group H will have a competitor left after the Round of 16. In case you didn’t get the subtle hint, yes, I think this game will decide who ends up as 1H.

How They’ll Finish (picks in bold move on to Knockout Stage)

1. Belgium – 7 points

2. Russia – 5 points

3. South Korea – 4 points

4. Algeria – 0 points

– K. Becks

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