Belgium`s time to shine in Group H
Sao Paulo: Bullish Belgium arrived in Brazil brimming with confidence and strong favourites to top Group H after cruising through qualifying unbeaten, while the clash between Russia and South Korea is likely to decide who joins them in the knockout stages.
Algeria have been given little chance of making it to the last 16 but with an improving squad built around French-born players they should at least improve on their 2010 performance when they failed to score and finished bottom of their group.
The term `golden generation` is a staple of the media but few Belgians would argue their current squad glistens like no other - even the side that finished a fantastic fourth at the 1986 World Cup.
Bookmakers rank traditional powerhouses Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain as the top teams to win the Cup, but many punters see Belgium as the smart bet to become the first European side to win the tournament on South American soil.
Belgium`s youthful squad is packed with talent from the cream of European football but few will have encountered the kind of pressure that comes with playing in a World Cup in Brazil, the spiritual home of football.
The presence of towering skipper Vincent Kompany is key for a Belgian defence that was picked apart by Colombia and Japan in friendlies late last year, while the attacking flair at coach Marc Wilmots` disposal is the envy of many managers in Brazil.
With bulldozing striker Romelu Lukaku flanked by spellbinding wide men Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas, Belgium present a true test of pace and physicality for opposing defenders.
The prospect of facing such Belgian firepower could see South Korea coach Hong Myung-bo break out in a cold sweat after his side slumped to a 4-0 loss to Ghana in their final World Cup warm-up in Miami on Monday.
Hong, an elegant sweeper in his day who skippered the 2002 Korean team to the World Cup semi-finals on home soil, could scarcely bear to watch as his dishevelled defence were ripped apart by the `Black Stars`.
"It was individual mistakes rather than the way the team was organised that cost us," Hong said of the defeat. "There is time to get better for the World Cup and I will do my best to improve the team."
Time is not on his side, however.
South Korea begin their campaign with a crunch match against Russia on June 17, a fixture likely to determine which of the two will progress to the next round.
The Ghana nightmare aside, South Korea have been improving since Hong took over as coach last year and they go into the tournament fully expecting to make it out of the group.
Russia, back at the World Cup for the first time in 12 years, suffered a massive setback last week with the news that skipper Roman Shirokov had lost his fitness fight and will sit out the competition due to a lingering Achilles injury.
With their most creative asset sidelined, coach Fabio Capello is likely to `park the bus` against Belgium and look to capitalise on Korea`s defensive failings on the counter-attack before facing Algeria in their final group game.
While few expect the North African side to progress beyond the group stage, coach Vahid Halilhodzic is not one of them.
The Franco-Bosnian said his side`s 2-1 win over Romania in their final tune-up for Brazil last week proved Algeria could go head to head with anyone at the World Cup.
"The team showed it could win over top teams," said Halilhodzic. "I am very optimistic for the future."
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