This is the eighth and final World Cup group preview as the days tick away to the tournament opener on June 12 in São Paulo between Brazil and Croatia. For comprehensive World Cup coverage, bookmark this page.
Belgium (12th in FIFA rankings) | First place in UEFA Group A | 10-17-9 all-time
Russia (18th) | First place in UEFA Group F | 17-14-6 all-time
Algeria (25th) | Defeated Burkina Faso 3-3 (away goals) in CAF third round | 2-5-2 all-time
South Korea (55th) | Second place in AFC Group A | 5-15-8 all-time
140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
Belgium got a "cushy draw" and Russia have Capello at the helm, but South Korea and Algeria want nothing more than to end European hegemony.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
In Africa, Algeria are considered a sleeping giant, and they needed away goals to escape a CAF playoff with Burkina Faso and book a place in Brazil. They may be the underdogs in Group H, but with a squad based largely in Europe, the Fennec Foxes certainly aren't roadkill.
Belgium are the clear favorite, their Golden Generation poised to explode on the world stage – as long as they aren't all exhausted from long seasons at some of Europe's biggest clubs. Chemistry issues have been issues in the past, but perhaps head coach Marc Wilmots has found the mix that will deliver on the Belgians untapped World Cup potential.
Young talent will be the name of the game on June 26 in São Paolo, as South Korea and Belgium meet in a match that could be the difference between success and failure for both countries in Brazil.
Will Vincent Kompany build on Manchester City's title-winning campaign to lead his side to glory? Can the upstart Koreans replicate the magic the channeled at home in 2002? Either way, the pace of the game promises to be hectic.
|June 17 | 12 PM||Belgium||Algeria||Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte|
|June 17 | 6 PM||Russia||South Korea||Arena Pantanal, Cuiabá|
|June 22 | 12 PM||Belgium||Russia||Estádio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro|
|June 22 | 3 PM||Algeria||South Korea||Estádio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre|
|June 26 | 4 PM||South Korea||Belgium||Arena Corinthians, São Paulo|
|June 26 | 4 PM||Algeria||Russia||Arena da Baixada, Curitiba|
Eden Hazard, M, Belgium: Hazard will claim Chelsea's No. 10 shirt next season, and he'll be expected to pull the strings for the Red Devils in Brazil as well. The 23-year-old's talent isn't in doubt – he was named the PFA Young Player of the Year for the 2013-14 season – but he has yet to truly replicate his club goalscoring form in national colors. Then again, with the rest of Belgium's golden generation surrounding him, Hazard hasn't really needed to.
Son Heung-Min, F, South Korea: Arsenal practice player turned Watford loanee Park Chu-Young is a good bet to lead the line, but the real danger will likely come from Son, one of the Bundesliga's cadre of young studs. At just 21 years of age, he's got back-to-back seasons with double-digit goals in the Bundesliga with Hamburg SV and Bayer Leverkusen. He's more than ready for primetime in Brazil.
Islam Slimani, F, Algeria: The 25-year-old joined Sporting CP ahead of the 2013 season and was deployed off the bench during his first six months at the club. But the goals started flowing this spring after Fredy Montero's (remember him?) declining form gave Slimani an opportunity to shine in the XI. He ended the season with eight goals in 10 starts (26 appearances) and led Algeria with five in World Cup qualifying.
NEXT BIG THING...
These days, money is no object to Russian clubs, as oligarchs assemble high-priced dream teams on whim, but someone may soon tempt Dynamo Moscow's resolve when it comes to the 23-year-old Kokorin.
Last July, Kokorin was headed to Anzhi Makhachkala from Dynamo Moscow as the Dagestan outfit invested heavily in one of Russia's brightest young stars. A month later, with Anzhi's budget slashed, Kokorin was on his way back to Dynamo, where he scored 10 goals and dished out nine assists in 22 games.
Oh, he also scored four goals in seven qualifying starts for Russia. You may not have known his name before this summer, but the 23-year-old is ready to blow up on the world stage.
Romelu Lukaku. The 21-year-old man mountain would have been an easy choice for "Next Big Thing," but the truth is he's already arrived.
After scoring 17 and 15 goals in back-to-back English Premier League seasons for West Brom and Everton, Lukaku appears ready to lead the immensely talented Belgian line. He scored a hat-trick against Luxembourg in their most recent warmup – although FIFA wiped the match from the record books – and could be the difference between the Red Devils dominating the group and massive Belgian disappointment.
If Lukaku is on his game and banging in goals, Belgium have reason to believe they can win the whole thing. If not, the pressure may start mounting on their youth prodigies.
Russia are the only team in the tournament that doesn't have any players competing in what are commonly referred to as the "big four" European leagues – England, Spain, Italy and Germany. In fact, all 23 players in Fabio Capello's final squad hail from Russian clubs. Ka-ching!
SIX DEGREES OF MLS
South Korea head coach Hong Myung-Bo captained the Taeguk Warriors to a historic finish on their home turf in 2002, then packed his bags for Los Angeles, joining the Galaxy after they captured MLS Cup 2002.
- What Ever Happened To ... World Cup hero, LA Galaxy defender Hong Myung-Bo
He retired in 2004 but the game was in his blood, and Hong couldn't refuse an offer to join Dick Advocaat's Korea staff a year later. Now, almost a decade after he took up coaching, “The Eternal Libero” will be the head man in Brazil.
Without a South American team in the group, the two European sides have to like their odds at advancing.
Algeria promises to be a pesky opponent, but failed to win a game in 2010. South Korea, meanwhile, has the talent and belief to pull off a shocker or two, but may be four years away from being at their best.
That leaves Belgium and Russia, both of whom will have hell to pay at home if they don't make it through to the knockout stage. It says here that they'll do just that in a manageable group, but then again neither side is immune to an internal or on-field break down.