How did a country the size of Maryland, which hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002, come to be a trendy pick not just to win its (favorably drawn) group but also to reach the semifinals? The easy answer: Belgium is stacked.
In goal, Thibaut Courtois is world class, having helped Atlético Madrid to the Champions League final and a Spanish league title. The back line is built around 2012 Dutch Footballer of the Year Jan Vertonghen and the stalwart captains of Manchester City (Vincent Kompany) and Arsenal (Thomas Vermaelen), a crew that ceded only four qualifying goals.
The midfield draws from a diverse pool of cagey bruisers (Marouane Fellaini), fleet-footed distributors (Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard) and creative wingers (Kevin De Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas and 19-year-old Manchester United phenom Adnan Januzaj). And up top in manager Marc Wilmots’s 4-2-3-1, hulking striker Romelu Lukaku imposes his will upon defenses. Amazingly, over the past two seasons Belgium had as many top 10 scorers in England (Hazard, Lukaku, Christian Benteke) as Argentina, France, Spain and the Netherlands combined. The problem (as no less than Lionel Messi can attest) is that club and country are entirely different beasts; players’ brilliant track records with the former don’t necessarily extend to the latter.
Chemistry is needed, and the Red Devils—with an average age of 25 and just a single player who’s appeared in a Euro or a World Cup—are still finding theirs. Hazard, a 14‑goal man with Chelsea in 2013–14, has yet to appear comfortable among so many scorers, netting just one goal for his country in that time. (Only De Bruyne scored more than twice in qualifying.)
Another indication of a squad in search of its bearings: Belgium conceded 75 percent of its qualifying goals in the final 15 minutes of games. That wouldn’t be a worry if those goals came in blowouts. They didn’t. Belgium’s victory margin was never greater than two. Here’s where the Red Devils got lucky: Group H starts last (more time to jell), has the lightest travel schedule and includes arguably the easiest competition.
The likeliest candidate to shake things up, defensive-minded Russia, can be effective if Aleksandr Kerzhakov (five qualifying goals) and Aleksandr Kokorin (four) are firing. But in order to advance, new coach Fabio Capello will have to get his players’ heads screwed on straight. Their first-round exit in Euro 2012, after they had looked like the top team early on, suggests a lack of focus, as does their allowing 60 percent of their qualifying goals on headers.
South Korea suffers similar concentration issues, conceding 55 percent of its goals on set pieces during qualifying. (Only Iran was worse.) That’s surprising for a team whose only hope is to outwork opponents and play pristine soccer, given that midfielder Son Heung-min (nine goals for Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen) is the lone consistent scoring threat.
A side that troubled the U.S. and England four years ago, Algeria, has improved, mostly by nationalizing a handful of prodigies. While once it was a given that the likes of Zinedine Zidane would ignore their Algerian ancestry to play for France. Midfielder Saphir Taïder (Inter Milan) and left back Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli) each made the reverse trip after coming up through the French system. If they can mesh with Islam Slimani (five goals in qualifying) and Sofiane Feghouli, the Fennec Foxes have as good a chance of advancing as any African nation.
LYTTLETON: Algeria's Slimani among breakout players to watch
Introducing: South Korea M Ki Sung-
He’s not the first player to go overlooked at Premier League bottom-dweller Sunderland, but underestimate this quick-turn, long-range bomber at your peril. As an attacking midfielder he scored three goals this season (two more than Black Cats' USA striker Jozy Altidore) and earned a callback to his parent club, Swansea. After a knee knock late in the year, he was released for his last four games, giving him fresh legs for Brazil.
2014 World Cup Preview: Group H
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl previews Group H for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and picks his teams and players to watch once play begins.