As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
This could be the most wide-open group in Brazil when the World Cup commences next month. None of the teams has an expansive pedigree of success at the World Cup, and while there is a hierarchy of talent in the group there is also plenty of potential outcomes that could see any combination of the quartet advancing to the knockout stage.
The talk has centered on the seeded team in the bunch, with Belgium benefiting from the infusion of talent trained at top-flight clubs throughout Europe. Russia, preparing to host the World Cup four years from now, will hope to put in a good showing, as will 2002 semifinalists South Korea. And Algeria, though they failed to score a goal four years ago, was also defensively stout throughout the tournament — both Slovenia and the United States needed late goals to win tight 1-0 contests, and the Desert Foxes forced a scoreless draw with England.
Most groups have an overwhelming favorite; Group H offers the opportunity to see basically anything happen. Let’s now look quickly at each of the six matches that will determine the group standings and predict how the group will shake out. (All times Eastern.)
Belgium v. Algeria/Belo Horizonte (June 17/12:00pm)
With two friendlies from more than a decade ago comprising the sum total of matches between Algeria and Belgium, there is not much soccer history between the two countries. The Belgians are a physical side, but one that often has a hard time maintaining width in midfield. The Algerians have proven capable of being a thorn in the side of more heralded squads, though they are still searching for their first trip beyond the group stage in their fourth World Cup appearance. Look for the group to knot up quickly after these two teams fail to convert any chances and open the door for a different early leader.
PREDICTION: 0-0 draw
Russia v. South Korea/Cuiaba (June 17/6:00pm)
These two countries have started developing a winter-sports rivalry of sorts, with Viktor Ahn (formerly Ahn Hyun-Soo) defecting to Russia ahead of the Sochi Olympics after falling afoul of the South Korean team management. On the pitch, they have far less history; their inaugural match against one another came only last November in Dubai, where Russia scored in the second half to secure a 2-1 victory. The result could look much the same, with the Koreans narrowly reaching Brazil and the Russians securing passage in UEFA qualifying ahead of Portugal. Though they haven’t been in a World Cup since 2002, look for the European side to prevail in Cuiaba.
PREDICTION: 2-1 Russia
Belgium v. Russia/Rio de Janeiro (June 22/12:00pm)
Including the Soviet period, these two nations have squared off four different times at the World Cup. Most recently, Belgium prevailed 3-2 in Shizuoka at the 2002 World Cup, with current head coach Marc Wilmots scoring what would prove to be the game winner. Their most recent match, a 2010 friendly, also ended in a Belgian victory. Both teams advanced easily from European qualifying, but the Belgians have greater firepower and depth; that should make all the difference in the Maracana when these two teams square off for the fifth time in World Cup play.
PREDICTION: 3-1 Belgium
South Korea v. Algeria/Porto Alegre (June 22/3:00pm)
One of these two teams could still have a shot at reaching the knockout stage with a win. They have little history, with the only match between the two countries’ senior sides taking place three decades earlier. Their under-17 squads met at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, and South Korea won by the same 2-0 scoreline that its team had mustered way back in 1985. This is the best chance for the Algerians to use its defensive skill to thwart the Korean attack and earn three points.
PREDICTION: 1-0 Algeria
South Korea v. Belgium/São Paulo (June 26/4:00pm)
Without a single point from its first two contests, South Korea will have no chance to qualify for the knockout stage; their role against the Belgians can only be one of spoiler at this point in group play. For their part, Belgium will have already booked advancement to the next round. But with Algeria and Russia still threatening to leapfrog them for the top spot in the group, Belgium will still have plenty to play for in São Paulo on the last day of the preliminaries. Look for Eden Hazard to find space to exploit the Korean defense as the Belgians finish with seven points from their three matches.
PREDICTION: 2-0 Belgium
Algeria v. Russia/Curitiba (June 26/4:00pm)
This could be the most contentious match of Group H — at least for Russian coach Fabio Capello. Four years ago, the Italian was in charge of the English side when the Algerians forced a 0-0 draw. The North African squad could prove even more problematic for Capello’s Russian charges. Prior to playing Belgium in the previous match, Russia had not lost a match since August 2013 in Belfast; now, against the Desert Foxes, they will be in real danger of losing two in a row and missing a golden opportunity to reach the Round of 16. We could see history as the Algerians finally gain a measure of atonement for the shenanigans of 1982.
PREDICTION: 1-0 Algeria
Group H Prediction