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vagazette.com

World Cup: Group H preview

Young Belgium, veteran Russia are heavy favorites, but don't overlook South Korea

Tribune Newspapers

7:17 PM EDT, June 10, 2014

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Algeria

FIFA world ranking: 22.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best finish: Group stage.

How qualified: Beat Burkina Faso in CAF playoff.

Fun fact: Author Albert Camus was a goalkeeper in school, which likely makes the University of Algiers the only college to have had a Nobel Prize-winning keeper.

The skinny: Algeria, which hasn't won a major trophy since capturing the African Cup of Nations in 1990, has had to fight for respect. South Africa marked the team's first World Cup appearance in 24 years, and Algeria exited winless after losing its final game to the U.S. on Landon Donovan's goal in stoppage time. The young, inexperienced team is playing with more flair behind Sporting Lisbon striker Islam Slimani, but it still struggles on offense. Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic loves to go to his bench, mixing and matching his lineup to take advantage of his opponent's weaknesses.

Belgium

FIFA world ranking: 11.

Last World Cup: 2002.

Best finish: Fourth place (1986).

How qualified: UEFA Group A winner.

Fun fact: Belgium will be the least-traveled team in the group stage, having to cover fewer than 1,400 miles for its three games. The U.S. is traveling nearly 9,000 miles.

The skinny: With Chelsea's Eden Hazard, 23, up front, Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini, 26, in the midfield, Manchester City's Vincent Kompany, 28, on defense and Atletico Madrid's Thibaut Courtois, 22, in goal, Belgium has a solid, experienced collection of young stars who have performed well in hypercompetitive leagues. And they've played well lately, shutting out Sweden and Tunisia in their last two warm-ups. One question mark is the fitness of striker Romelu Lukaku, 21, who injured his right ankle against Tunisia.

Russia

FIFA world ranking: 19.

Last World Cup: 2002.

Best finish: Group stage.

How qualified: UEFA Group F winner.

Fun fact: Only two of the 42 players called up in the last year compete for teams outside the Russian Premier League. Neither made the World Cup roster.

The skinny: The Russian soccer federation has its eyes on 2018, when the country will host the World Cup. But five core players are older than 30 and probably won't be around then, so they'll be trying to make a statement in Brazil. Former England coach Fabio Capello took over on the sidelines two years ago after Russia's disastrous performance in the 2012 Euros and guided the team past Portugal in World Cup qualifying, conceding just five goals in 10 games. This is Russia's second World Cup appearance since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

South Korea

FIFA world ranking: 57.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best finish: Fourth place (2002).

How qualified: AFC Group A runner-up.

Fun fact: This is South Korea's eighth consecutive World Cup appearance and ninth overall, most among Asian nations.

The skinny: In nine World Cups, South Korea has made it out of the group stage just twice, but both of those performances came in the last three tournaments. The Koreans have their work cut out for them if they hope to keep that momentum going in this group, in which Belgium and Russia are the heavy favorites. But dangerous Bayer Leverkusen striker Son Heung-Min gives them a potent scoring threat, and if the young team — only one player is older than 30 — plays well against Russia, it could make things interesting.