The time for previews is mercifully coming to an end. Let’s do this.
Belgium: Belgium are the dark horses in this tournament, they say. They’ve been saying that since last year at least, and a moderately easy group has done little if anything to temper that sentiment. It’s become cliche, but then there are reasons for that. The amount of young talent produced by a country of 11 million people is staggering. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj, and Kevin De Bruyne are all 23 or younger, as is Christian Benteke, who will miss the World Cup due to injury. A back four of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen is less youthful, but no less skilled. You could argue that Belgium will be a powerhouse in 2018, but these players have the talent to do things now.
The problem for Belgium is that with youth comes inexperience. This is an untested group, which didn’t play in Euro 2012 and had fairly little challenge in their qualifying group. In friendlies last November they lost to both Colombia and Japan at home. This group shouldn’t cause Belgium too much trouble, but the prospect of facing Germany or Portugal in the round of 16 would be uncharted territory entirely.
Russia: The next hosts of the World Cup suffered a blow when their captain, Roman Shirokov, missed out on Brazil due to a back injury. The high point of the post-Soviet era in Russian soccer was a run to the semifinals in Euro 2008. But like Turkey, who also made the semifinals in that tournament, Russia failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010. After winning their first match at Euro 2012, Russia didn’t escape the group stage. The current team consists entirely of players from the Russian Premier League, which could be worrisome. But Fabio Capello led the Russians through qualifying ahead of Portugal, and there’s probably enough talent here to escape the group. If they reach the knockout stage, it will be the first time they’ve gotten out of the group at the World Cup since 1986.
South Korea: South Korea enter this World Cup on a pretty dreadful run of form. In their final tune-up friendly before heading to Brazil, they lost 4-0 to Ghana. Before that, they lost at home to Tunisia. Last November, they lost a neutral-site friendly to Russia. South Korea took advantage of a light group to finish second in their group in 2010, but even a light group by 2014 standards might not be enough for them.
Algeria: The Algerians spent most of the 2010 World Cup without much interest in scoring, and they got what they deserved: an exit without a goal. You’ll remember them as the antagonist in noble America’s quest to escape the group stage. Once again, Algeria have one of the weakest groups in the World Cup, but once again you shouldn’t expect much from them. They have returned to do nothing, a fate Albert Camus might not his head at. Their problem is simple: most of the best Algerians play for France.
Key Player: Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Russia
At 31, Kerzhakov is one of several Russian players who probably won’t be around when they host the 2018 tournament. His 25 international goals are by far the most on the squad, and in a group where the mystery is who will finish second, the experienced striker’s performance may well prove the difference.
What will happen: Belgium, despite their inexperience, are the best team in this group by some distance. Likewise, Algeria are the worst by some distance. Russia and South Korea will battle for second, and I see the Russians pulling that out.