2014 World Cup

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JULY 13 | RIO DE JANEIRO
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World Cup Group H Preview: Belgium the favorite, Russia second?

By Mike Singer | CBSSports.com

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Romelu Lukaku is integral to Belgium's attack. (USATSI)

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Simply put, Group H severely lacks the star power of either a Group B (Spain, Netherlands) or Group G (Germany, Portugal) but that doesn't mean that Belgium doesn't have the weapons to advance deep into the tournament. It's the clear favorite to finish atop the group, leaving Russia, Algeria and the Korea Republic to battle for second. Algeria (still reeling from Landon Donovan's stoppage-time goal last World Cup?) doesn't figure to be much of a threat, while the Korea Republic will look to reach the knockout rounds yet again. Belgium certainly got an easier draw, but expect the contenders from the USA's Group of Death to pay close attention to how they fare. Group G's runner-up could take on the extremely youthful but dangerous squad in the Round of 16.

The teams:

Belgium: It only makes sense to begin with the group favorite, which stormed through its qualifying with eights win and two draws. Belgium (No. 12 in FIFA world rankings) hasn't been relevant since the 2002 World Cup, which alludes to their biggest weakness -- inexperience. But what they lack in World Cup comfort, they more than make up in star power with forwards Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and veteran defender Vincent Kompany. With a wealth of talent sprinkled all over Europe's domestic leagues, the thought is that big-stage pressure can be overcome. Buoyed by an explosive scoring attack that complements its steadfast defense, this Belgian team will go as far as its forwards propel it. They're not sneaking up on anybody.

Russia: This Russian team appears to have a good chance at advancing out of Group H. It split two matches against Portugal (No. 3 in FIFA rankings) and surprisingly finished first in its qualifying group, ahead of Ronaldo's squad. Taking after coach Fabio Capello's style, the Russians are rock-solid defensively, easing the pressure off of its attackers. In 10 qualifying matches, they allowed a grand total of five goals. The primary reason? Igor Akinfeev, the team's stellar keeper, who won the 2013 Russian Premier League Player of the Year for CSKA Moscow. As stingy as their style figures to be, no country has ever won a World Cup with a foreign-born coach. As you might have guessed, Capello isn't a Russian surname.

Korea Republic: There's actually a rich football history in South Korea, given that the team has qualified for eight consecutive World Cups, not to mention that all-time best fourth-place finish in 2002. But a suspect showing in qualifying, including a 2-1 loss to Lebanon and draws against Kuwait and Uzbekistan, ultimately cost manager Cho Kwangrae his job. Now it's up to Hong Myung-Bo to mesh his young stars from domestic and European leagues. While loaded with potential scorers, the Taeguk Warriors as they're known, used 45 different players in qualifying, an indication of the squad's lack of cohesion. Perhaps they can capture some of the magic of their coach, who captained South Korea's fourth-place finish 12 years ago.

Algeria: Coming off its 2010 World Cup campaign in which Algeria notched exactly zero goals, there's not a ton of optimism surrounding their chances this summer. The strength lies in the team's defensive presence, but against group teams Belgium and Russia, both of which boast tremendous scorers, their best bet may be playing for a draw, and even that's asking a lot. Veteran defender Madjid Boughherra could help stabilize the backline, but again, Algeria will need to score to advance.

The key players:

Eden Hazard: Some have the 23-year-old Chelsea midfielder pegged as the tournament's breakout star, and that's certainly a possibility as he'll orchestrate Belgium's offense. But unlike his role for his club team, he won't be asked to score as much this summer because of Belgium's other attacking threats, namely Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. That should help alleviate pressure, giving Hazard a chance to flourish along his preferred left side.

Romelu Lukaku: On loan from Chelsea, Belgium's Lukaku had a wonderful season for Everton, scoring 14 goals in 30 Premier League games. At only 21, he's viewed as the team's primary scoring option, which is vital given that another one of Belgium's prized strikers, Christian Benteke, will miss the World Cup after suffering an Achilles tendon injury.

Alexander Kokorin: The majority of Russia's team will be fielded from its domestic leagues, and its top scorer is no exception. Kokorin, 23, plays for Dynamo Moscow, and he'll look to complement the national team's staunch defense by providing a vital scoring punch. Hailed as the future of Russian football, he had five goals in nine games for his club and added four more for Russia during qualifying.

Park Chu Young: The Arsenal striker had seen little of the pitch before a recent loan to Watford finally gave him a chance to compete on a regular basis. Although his roster spot was by no means guaranteed, South Korea had little in the way of replacement forwards. He helped solidify his spot with a team-high six goals during qualifying. Midfielder Lee Chung-Yong, the 2010 team's captain, is back and must control possession to help facilitate the offense as well.

How the group should play out:

Belgium, although admittedly green, was gifted a fortuitous draw and should advance with ease. The only downside of a weaker group is that it won't be evident until the knockout stages whether Belgium has the depth and skill to compete with the world's giants from South America and Europe. The final spot could be a toss-up between Russia and South Korea, but if qualifying was any indication, the Russians appear far more fit to advance out of the group stages for the first time in history.

Group H Predictions
Prediction
Jason
La Canfora
Jeff
Borzello
Tom
Fornelli
Evan
Hilbert
Jerry
Hinnen
Mike
Singer
1st
Belgium
Belgium
Belgium
Belgium
Belgium
Belgium
2nd
Russia
Russia
Russia
Russia
South Korea
Russia
3rd
South Korea
South Korea
South Korea
Algeria
Russia
South Korea
4th
Algeria
Algeria
Algeria
South Korea
Algeria
Algeria
 
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