Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Football Hipster World Cup Preview: Group H

Not a group whose members, Belgium perhaps excepted, have obvious potential to make a big impact on the tournament. This is, however, a very open group, with an interesting contrast of styles and, most likely, a real battle for second place. The exuberant attackers of Belgium remain an unknown quantity as a unit, but doughty and defensive Algeria and pacy, counter-attacking Korea will still most likely find themselves duking it out for second with a cautious, organised Russia, their squad packed with internationally unknown domestic stars. A good one for the neutrals.


Slimani: high hopes
Algeria squeaked through qualification after winning a goal-happy playoff against Burkina Faso, courtesy of the away goals rule. The 3-3 aggregate draw may seem rather untypical of the “Fennec Foxes”, who maintained a tight defence in their CAF qualifying group, but their group stage opposition was weak, and one question over Algeria is how well this side can maintain its defensive discipline against tougher opposition. Scoring goals may be a problem too, as we’ll see. But a decent draw, with no giants of world football to face in Group H, has given the Algerians hope, and they look far from pure also-rans.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic is known as something of a tinkerman, so within his preferred 4-3-2-1 setup we could see any number of possible combinations of personnel. That said, there is probably a clear first choice for the striker’s role, where Islam Slimani has a solid record of 10 goals in 20 games. He stepped up this season from Algerian club football to play for Sporting in Portugal, and has so far more than made the grade. He is an out-and-out, natural striker, uncomplicated but skilful and capable of scoring from anywhere. The other established forward in the squad, El Arabi Soudani, is a natural at second striker, and may play on the left side of the attack. There’s also Nabil Ghilas, of FC Porto, a burly striker who is relatively new to the international scene. He likes to run from deep with the ball, in a manner that may remind English fans-of-a-certain-age of one Stanley V. Collymore. Ghilas is likely to begin the tournament as a reserve, however, with Valencia attacking midfielder Sofiane Feghouli likely to start on the right of the front three, where his range of tricks and turns will make him Algeria’s best hope of cracking open World Cup defences.
In midfield the selection is likely to demonstrate a cautious attitude, with a preference for ballwinners and markers who can contain the opposition and generate opportunities to break. Hassan Yebda and Saphir Taider are solid choices with good European club experience; Yebda has crucial World Cup experience and will be the lynchpin of the midfield. Medhi Lacen, who partnered Yebda in South Africa in 2010, is still in contention and played in the crucial final qualifying game against Burkina Faso, but he will be battling for selection this time with Adlene Guedioura, who was also in South Africa and is an established presence in English football; Tottenham youngster Nabil Bentaleb and defender/midfielder Carl Medjani will also be in contention in this area of the park. There are more attacking options in midfield, with Yacine Brahimi of Gernada and Abdelmoumen Djabou of domestic side Club Africaine available, but both are likely to be used as options off the bench and will slot most neatly into the wider attacking positions than into the heart of the midfield. The same probably applies to Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez.
In defence, captain Madjid Bougherra is a rare guaranteed starter and is another one of the core of players with 2010 World Cup experience. He will be familiar to Rangers fans, having spent three successful years at the club, and is actually one of Algeria’s primary goal threats, from set pieces. The versatile Medjani is probably his likeliest partner at centre-back, although Rafik Halliche has a chance of getting the nod as he, too, offers World Cup experience. Liassine Cadamuro, an Italian-Algerian born in France can also play here, although he’s a natural right-back; and with enormous Watford centre-half Essaid Belkalem in the squad, as well as Mehdi Mostefa (who can also play in midfield), there is loads of cover. Indeed, with nine defenders in total, the shape of the squad betrays “Coach Vahid’s” likely priorities. At right back, Djamel Mesbah is the main man with his World Cup and Italian club experience, with Alissa Mandi of Reims a new challenger. Napoli’s Faouzi Ghoulam is first choice left back, while Mohamed Zemmamouche has recently displaced 2010 veteran Rais M’Bolhi – also in the squad – between the posts.
Algeria can’t be written off. They’ve got their work cut out for them against Korea, Belgium and Russia, but at the same time there’s probably no other group they’d rather have been drawn in. They will certainly be able to field an experienced, crafty and, hopefully, organised unit which will be solid in defence and comfortable on the ball. What is lacking is any real sign of individual brilliance, and on Feghouli’s slim shoulders rest virtually all of the team’s hopes of carving out opportunities in open play. He will need to be on form, or else Algeria will be hoping for counter-attacking opportunities, mistakes and set-pieces. Wobbles against Burkina Faso notwithstanding, we think Algeria will prove a decent defensive unit, and while we’re not prepared to tip them to qualify, they could prove a serious impediment to the hopes of Russia and Belgium in particular.
Strengths: Loads of experience; decent backup in most positions; flexible approach; organisation and solidity. We think.
Weaknesses: Lack of star quality – it’s not clear where the chances will come from. Few players established at very top level. Only one out and out no.9, in Slimani, though he looks like a good player.
Young player to watch: Bentaleb is a lively and highly promising midfielder who will fit well into Algeria’s system. Stretching the definition of “young” a bit, Ghilas at 24 is an exciting player looking for a breakthrough.
Verdict: A group stage exit is likely – but far from inevitable.



Courtois: Europe's best
You can call us Belgium sceptics, I guess. That they are still hailed as “dark horses” is remarkable, really; you can trek days by camel train into the depths of the desert and meet isolated, oasis-hopping Berber tribesmen who, in between sharing tokes on the sheesha, will chat for hours about how Belgium have a fairly handy First XI. Yes, everyone knows they are a decent side, but a realistic shout for the World Cup? We think that’s stretching it. Belgium have two problems. The first is that their current generation is almost entirely untested at this level. The last tournament for which Belgium qualified was, almost unbelievably, the 2002 World Cup, and gangling Bayern benchman Daniel van Buyten is the only current squad member who travelled to Japan/Korea. The second issue is that behind an impressive First XI, and save in one or two positions like goalkeeper, Belgium have little depth of quality. Injuries or suspensions could hit them hard, and even as it is, their starting team contains two converted centre-backs at full-back. The draw has been kind to Belgium, giving them every chance of getting through the group, but expectations may have grown to unrealistic levels now.
Taking it from the top, the withdrawal of Christian Bentecke leaves Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku pretty much unchallenged at centre-forward. Although Bentecke was coach Marc Wilmots’ first choice, Lukaku looks to us a more complete player, and more likely to make the adjustment to the environment of World Cup football. The only backup to Lukaku, in fact, is young Divock Origi, a raw 19 year old who has only one season as a first teamer under his belt at Lille. Belgium look heavily reliant on Lukaku to stay fit, although they don’t actually rely on him for too many goals; with six in 29 internationals, his goalscoring record for the national side is not spectacular. A big part of his role, however, is to play with back to goal and bring others in; Belgium scored lots of goals in qualifying but they spread them around. Except for van Buyten, there’s nobody in the squad who’s into double figures. In practice,  a lot of the goal will come from modern superwingers Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, both on decent club form although Hazard, in particular, is seen as having under-delivered at international level. Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and Napoli’s Dries Mertens are essentially understudies to de Bruyne and Hazard; Mirallas can also play as a striker, and is the only obvious third choice in that position, but it does not naturally suit his deep-dropping, dribbling style. Finally, in attack, Adnan Januzaj dealt Kosovan football a blow by deciding to play for Belgium at the last minute before this World Cup; his apparent stroll into the World Cup squad ruffled a few feathers and we don’t see him getting a starting berth just yet.
Like many teams who prefer 4-3-3, Belgium play a highly combative midfield trio behind their buzzing attack. There’s still plenty of silk to go with the steel, though. Moussa Dembele will start in one of the midfield roles; the Tottenham man has no shortage of fans to sing his endless praises at either club or national level, but in truth he has yet to really make his mark on the game. He does have an impressively complete range of skills, though, and is consistent if rarely spectacular for Belgium in a box-to-box role. A good World Cup would take him to the next level. Dembele’s clubmate, Nacer Chadli, has seen plenty of game-time alongside, and is an overtly attacking choice, but when the chips are down Wilmots seems to prefer Porto’s Steven Defour, who offers more defensive resistance. Between and behind Dembele and Defour, Axel Witsel will start in the deep lying position where he was ever-present in qualifying. While we don’t generally do pop trivia in our World Cup previews, it delights us to tell you that Witsel was named after Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverley Hills Cop. Although Wilmots, like the entire Belgian technical coaching setup in fact, is wedded to 4-3-3 as the national formation, there are options to switch up or down in midfield. The default is to play with Witsel deep and then to push Dembele and Defour or, especially, Chadli, on a bit; but there’s also the option of dropping the two back and bringing in a no.10, which could be the rumbustious Marouane Fellaini – surely desperate for a decent World Cup after a totally counterproductive move to Manchester United – or could be almost any of the winger/forwards, especially de Bruyne.
The centre of the defence is a real area of strength for Belgium, with an imposing trio made up of Manchester City’s steadfast Vincent Kompany, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen (on his day, the best footballing centre-back in the world for our money – and that includes Mats Hummels) and Thibaut Courtois, who was probably the best goalkeeper in Europe this season. On the flanks however there is a slightly odd situation in which natural centre-backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen play at right and left back respectively. Each is a good defender, but they are being played out of position, and there are limits, we think, to how far the notion of the modern total footballer can be stretched. It will be interesting to see how Belgium cope with pace and overlap down the flanks, especially since Hazard, in particular, is not exactly the model of the backtracking winger who helps his fullback. For all that, Belgium conceded very few goals in qualifying, in a difficult group. Curiously, this team with centre-backs for full-backs has, among its reserve defenders, at least two full-backs who can step in at centre-back: Laurent Ciman and Nico Lombaerts. Anthony Vanden Borre is a backup option at right back while the veteran van Buyten is a reassuring reserve in the centre and will likely be first pick if one of the starting defenders struggles. That Wilmots has taken eight defenders to the World Cup suggests a curious lack of confidence in his setup in this department, and it’s especially strange when one considers that Ciman hasn’t played for Belgium since 2011 and Lombaerts has played only one international in two years. It’s not clear why Wilmots wants to carry what looks like dead wood in this area. There is an excellent backup goalkeeper, on the other hand, in Liverpool’s agile, if occasionally slightly erratic, Simon Mignolet.
Although Belgium are perceived as a young side on the rise, this may yet turn out to be their best shot at the World Cup. Although a lot of the attacking players – Hazard, de Bruyne, Lukaku – are young, Dembele, Defour, Fellaini, Kompany, Vermaelen and Vertonghen will all be 30 or older in 2018. With this amount of quality in its prime, you have to wonder how Belgium managed not to qualify for Euro 2012 or the 2010 World Cup, and it seems a shame because there’s now a lot of pressure on this generation to make the most of what may be its only shot at the World Cup. Belgium have the quality, on paper, of a good tip for the semi-finals; they have the reputation of dark horses; but in terms of tournament form they are pure wild cards.
Strengths: Very high quality players with top club experience, distributed evenly throughout the team; togetherness and stability with a clear system and first choice selection; hugely dynamic midfield and a solid heart to the defence.
Weaknesses: Lack of tournament experience; pressure and weight of expectations; lack of options at centre-forward; lack of quality backup; questionable selection at full-back; Wilmots doesn’t have a reputation as a particularly tactical or adaptable coach.
Young player to watch: Hazard could be one of the real stars of this World Cup, and if Belgium do well, he will be at the centre of things. Also, keep an eye out for Januzaj, who starred in this year’s Champions’ League.
Verdict: Belgium have what it takes to win their group, and dealt easily in qualifying with sides the equal of Russia or South Korea. In the second round they will play whoever escapes Group G in second place, and look capable of handling that. We think things may get too tough for them in the quarters, though if everyone stays fit and plays well they could go further.


We love Alan
Russia are at the World Cup? Well yes they are, having seen off Portugal to top their qualifying pool. The relative stealth of their approach has much to do with the low profile of most of the squad members to foreign audiences, since, to a man, they play their club football in the Russian league. This parochialism, in fact, is one of Russia’s big weaknesses. With an attractive combination of good wages and home comforts on offer, there’s no reason Russian footballers should be criticised individually for failing to seek moves abroad, but collectively the lack of international experience is a concern. Russian football is idiosyncratic in certain respects – surfaces, weather, refereeing – and the outright quality of the domestic league isn’t quite up to that of the English, Spanish or Italian club games (to name three other countries whose players mostly stay at home).

The second big weakness is a tendency to waste their best stars. For a big country, Russia doesn’t produce top flight footballing talent in great quantities, so it’s disappointing that Andrew Arshavin, for instance, ended up falling so far short of his world class potential. The same risks happening to Alan Dzagoev, an absolutely sublime player who on his day is one of the world’s two or three best attacking central midfielders. He sparkled at Euro 2012 but has since fallen from favour with Fabio Capello, a coach whose emphasis (in our view, over-emphasis) on discipline does not sit well with the volatile Dazgoev. He’s made the squad and it will be interesting to see if and where he plays; his club play him in a holding role, which seems a waste of his formidable attacking qualities; we see him as an advanced playmaker, a midfield no.10. Russia need Dzagoev at his best, and it’s not clear Capello is the right coach to extract that from him.

With or without Dzagoev’s backup, Russia’s strikers (only one of whom is likely to play at any one time) have their work cut out. The man of the hour is Dinamo Moscow’s 23-year-old hit man Alexander Korkorin. Side-parted and serious-looking in the classic USSR mould, Korkorin looks amazing in those YouTube collages where three-second bursts of skill are interwoven to a dreamy eurocheese soundtrack. It will be interesting to see whether he’s that good in real life; he seems to have a knack of making finishing look easy, but isn’t in fact yet a really prolific goalscorer. He’s likely to start, although we marginally prefer Alexander Kerzhakov for the target man role. Kerzhakov, of Zenit, is something of a Russian Alan Shearer figure; a top scorer domestically, his form has been somewhat intermittent at international level; his playing style is even reminiscent of the famous English no.9. He had a disappointing Euro 2012 and has probably slipped from his previously assured starting position. 22-year-old striker Maksim Kanunnikov is very much the backup option, and is mainly here for the experience, having made his international debut only in May.

Capello hasn’t become football’s Mr Exciting since his rather dismal tenure as England boss, and his midfield setup starts from defensive principles, with one or two screening players in either a 4-2-3-1 formation, or the world’s least attacking 4-1-4-1. To be fair to Capello, this provided a good platform in qualifying, where Russia prospered primarily by virtue of a stern defence. The key screening man is Denis Glushakov, although former captain Igor Denisov also plays here and could either be an alternative to Glushakov, or play alongside him if a very stiff midfield is sought.  More likely, a key central role in either formation will go to new captain Roman Shirokov. Now 32, Shirokov is noted for his defensive qualities but has a very tidy pass on him and grabs more than his fair share of goals, often from range. To provide a more overtly attacking presence in the centre of midfield, we could see the third central slot taken by Viktor Fayzulin of Zenit, who likes to get into the box. However, if Dzagoev plays for Russia, it’ll be here, and Fayzulin will be the man to make way. On the left of the midfield we will see Yuri Zhirkov, now returned from his tour with Chelsea, who will combine with attacking left-back Dmitri Kombarov to launch attacks. Tricky attacking midfielder Oleg Shatov could also play out wide, although he’s probably a reserve, as is Aleksei Ionov on the right wing where Alexander Samedov will be first choice.

At the back, it starts with Igor Akinfeev, still undisputed first choice despite some Joe Hart-style wobbles in form. In front of him, it’s an experienced though not exactly pacy combination, with Sergei Ignashevich (34 years old, 94 caps) and Vasili Berezutski (31, 76 caps) still the first choice pairing. Andrei Zenyonov and the hard-sounding Vladimir Granat are the reserve centre-backs while CSKA Moscow’s energetic and tenacious Georgi Schennikov is a rival for Kombarov on the left. World Soccer magazine tells us that Schennikov’s dad won an Olympic silver medal for walking, but fear not, young Georgi has more pace. At right back there’s no undisputed first choice, as Alezander Anyukov, the long time holder of the position, has drifted from favour and didn’t make the squad. Instead, Dinamo’s Alexei Kozlov will slug it out with Anzhi’s Andrei Yeschenko.

Russia were extraordinarily mean during the first half of their qualifying campaign, starting to concede a few goals over the second half. Still, they let in only 5 in 10 games in total. Capello will be looking to use defence as a firm platform from which to snaffle tight wins. The side actually scored plenty in qualifying, but mainly against weak opposition, and attack looks like Russia’s weakness. There’s an overall lack of creativity, especially if Dzagoev doesn’t start, and not a huge amount of pace; much will depend on the form of Korkorin and Kerzhakov. Russian pundits have raised doubts about the fitness of the players, which rather subverts the stereotype of the well-drilled Russian super-athlete. If they can hold their shape, they may escape the group, but we do not expect great things.

Strengths: Experience at the back; solid defensive shape and good players available across the defence and defensive midfield.

Weaknesses: Lack of international exposure at club level for many of the players; limited attacking talent and a tendency to waste what they have.

Young player to watch: Korkorin

Verdict: Could escape a group in which the battle for second place is quite open, but we slightly prefer South Korea.


South Korea

Go on my Son
In the years since the breakthrough 2002 World Cup, East Asian football has failed somewhat to kick on and force its way into the top tier of the international game; and arguably no team has disappointed more than the one that did best in 2002, South Korea. Unimpressive in qualifying, the Koreans have not played a competitive game for a year, now, and the form in friendlies has been disappointing. Despite highlights like wins over Greece and Switzerland, the Koreans’ form against the kind of opposition who will make up their peer group at the World Cup has mostly been poor, with defeats against Ghana, Mexico, and the USA. It’s not a classic Korea side, and the squad looks quite transitional, but with only a moderately challenging group draw the second round is still a real possibility.
In defence, Jung Sung-ryun is still first choice despite doubts about his form. Kim Seung-gyu of Ulsan Hyundai is his main challenger. Coach Hong Myung-bo – a World Cup legend as a player himself – will then play a four-man defence in which his namesake Hong Jeong-ho has established himself as the new star. HE has recently trodden the well-worn path from Korea to the Bundesliga and established himself at Augsburg. Alongside him in what’s likely to be a youthful centre-back pairing is Kim Young-gwon, who plays his football in the PRC, under Marcello Lippi at China’s new club force, Guangzhou Evergrande. In terms of talent, this is one of the strongest areas of the Korean squad, but inexperience is a potential issue. At right back there’s a bit of choice, with Lee Yong of Ulsan Hyundai an aggressive attacking presence who will help Korea launch their preferred counter-attacks; but Hwang Seok-ho of Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima is an option too, as is enthusiastic overlapper Kim Chang-soo of Kashiwa Reysol. At left-back, Hong has ignored the claims of rising star Kim Jin-su, and taken Yun Suk-young, whose career has stalled a little since moving to QPR, and Park Joo-ho of Mainz. Park’s Bundesliga experience may sway the balance in his favour, although Yong Lee can also play on this side. It’s not an especially experienced defensive unit, it must be said, and for a team who will probably rely on sitting back to create room for counter-attacks, its ability to withstand sustained pressure must be a concern. There’s also a lack of backup in the middle of defence with only the veteran Kwak Tae-hwi as a reserve centre-backup.
There’s a bit more established star quality in midfield where Ki Sung-yueng, of Swansea and latterly Sunderland, is probably the team’s key player. He has been successful in English football, and plays deep for Korea, both screening the defence and dictating the play. His partner in a 4-2-3-1 formationis to be determined. If Hong wants to put someone a bit angry in there, then the tough-tackling but slightly unpredictable Park Jung-woo is an option, as might be the somewhat more placid Han Kook-young. Ha Dae-sung of Beijing Guoan can also play in the withdrawn role but is probably seen mainly as a deputy to Ki. Finally, Bolton’s talented Lee Chung-yong has played deep, as a playmaker, but he’s no enforcer, and it’s doubtful that Hong will be feeling generous enough to sacrifice ballwinning capability in that part of the field.
The attack will probably consist of three attacking midfielders behind a single centre-forward. Like their Asian rivals Japan, Korea have a host of pacy and technically skilled options in the advanced part of midfield. The “Sonsation”, Son Heung-min, probably has his hands on the leftmost position, although he could also play on the right, A classic counter-attacker, his aggressive running and precision shooting could be among Korea’s best weapons. Bolton’s Lee may play on the right side; with years of English league experience with Bolton now (albeit mostly second-flight), he has pace and plenty of skills in his locker, although we suspect his passing is his greatest strength, meaning he might be more effective in that deeper role he probably won’t get. Alternatives in this area of the field are replete. In the centre – behind the striker – Koo Ja-cheol of Mainz may get the nod although Cardiff’s Kim Bo-kyoung is also in contention. There’s also Ji Dong-won; the former Sunderland man is still young at 23 and has recovered his form since some disappointing seasons at Sunderland, earning a move to Dortmund from Augsburg this summer. He’s not in serious contention for the no.9 role, but he’s versatile enough to play anywhere behind it. The role of centre-forward will probably go to Arsenal’s Park Chu-young, never really prolific at club level but a reliable goal threat for Korea. He seems a little short of top flight quality but his only real rival here is big Kim Shin-wook, “The Wookie”, a 6ft 6 target man in the old school mode. Despite his height, Kim doesn’t rely solely on aerial threat, and has balls skills; but don’t expect that to stop Korea aiming balls for his bonce if he comes on late in games when Korea are chasing. Lee Keun-ho, who plays domestically and is a serving member of the army, is also in the squad as yet another option in that “second striker” role, somewhere in the middle or on the right of the attacking midfield.
Unheralded and on dubious form though they may be, we like look of Korea’s mobile and technical attack. Though sputtering performances in the friendlies – including blanks drawn against Ghana, Tunisia, the US and Mexico – hardly suggest a fearsome goalscoring machine, but friendlies are, for want of a deeper level of analysis, funny things. In the heat of the World Cup we fancy Korea to make the odd goal, but it will probably come on the break, where pace and movement can be exploited. Belgium will attack hard, and may allow for this kind of counter-punch, while Algeria look beatable; Russia, on the other hand, might outmuscle the Koreans. The big worry for a counter-attacking side is that the defence is inexperienced and may buckle under pressure; the attack, on the other hand, is quite experienced, with most of the options having over 20 caps.
Strengths: Pace; technical qualities of the midfield and attack; plenty of experience in forward areas.
Weaknesses: Poor form; uncertain selection in midfield; inexperienced defence; lack of a really top quality centre-forward.
Young player to watch: Son Heung-min
Verdict: With seemingly enough in attack to trouble anyone in this group, we make the Koreans our pick for second place. They seem unlikely to get the better of whoever they face in the second round from Group G, however.

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