Gary Lineker stole the line which I penned well before his column on the BBC site or the channel’s preview of the 20th finals on World Cup Eve. How on Earth can Belgium can be dark horses for the tournament, if they are EVERYONE’S choice of darkhorses?
Plus, most of their players are no longer a secret, with Vincent Kompany winning the Premier League twice in three seasons at Manchester City, Romelu Lukaku rattling in 30 goals in two loan spells at less than fancied clubs in England’s top-flight, Eden Hazard collecting the league Young Player of the Year, Kevin Mirallas in sparkling form for Everton and two of Europe’s best goalkeepers in Simon Mignolet and Thibault Courtois at their disposal.
That’s just for starters. They have quality in every position, the aforementioned Vincent has company (dear, dear) in Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen at centre-back, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini – despite his poor season at Manchester United and he will be looking to impress potential suitors – Moussa Dembele (the one at Spurs), Steven Defour, Kevin de Bruyne in central midfield, and wingers Nacer Chadli, Adnan Januzaj, Dries Mertens. It’s a real golden generation, which England’s 2006 squad was supposed to be, but although I see them coasting through this below-par group, they look all set to meet Argentina in the quarter-finals and with the South American conditions in favour of the Alejandro Sabella’s men, that’s were I feel they will come unstuck. However, that will be one of the great games of this tournament and should they beat Seleccion, then they can go all the way. Let’s just say that there will be little fear of the unknown for them.
Russia are, as ever, an enigma. With so much trouble going on in their country and the surrounding regions, don’t expect many neturals to be supporting them in such a political climate. But it’s the elements from the sky which I think will be against them, though – and it’s in this way that they will surely crave dark clouds of a different kind. There is plenty of talent in the squad, look no further than their main protagonist Alan Dzagoev in Pokraine 2012.
Valued at over £20m by his club CSKA Moscow, he has been a target for many a huge European club, but some feel that the price tag is a little in excess of what they would pay for the 23-year-old, until he is at least consistently proven at a high level. Well, he gave the world a glimpse of what he is capable of two years ago, although the Russians fell short of what was supposed to be a relatively successful effort for them. Fabio Capello is no mug, though and he will have them well-prepared for a better showing in Brazil. One man whose value is sky-rocketing is 23-year-old forward, Aleksandr Kokorin who is all set to take over from the 31-year-old (another Aleksandr) Kerzhakov although he does play more as a secondary striker. It showed in his excellent return of ten goals and nine assists in just 22 appearances last season adding to his opening campaign of 22 matches, ten goals and three assists, which shows he is nothing if not consistent in front of goal. The ammunition is most likely going to be supplied by Dmitri Kombarov and Yuri Zhirkov from the left and yet another Aleksandr – Samedov – from the opposite flank.
With Igor Akinfeev again in inspired form this season and his namesake Igor Denisov pulling the strings and thwarting opposition attacks in defensive midfield, they have the main positions filled. Vastly-experienced centre-back Vasili Berezutski will at home with CSKA Moscow team-mates and orchestrating things from defence with the marauding runs from full-back of Kokorin’s club colleague, Aleksey Kozlov, they will be entertaining. But will probably be eliminated by Germany in the first-round knockout.
Whatever the fate of South Korea in Brazil, everyone will be talking about Bayer Leverkusen winger, Son Heung-min – if they aren’t already. Watchers of the Bundesliga, will already know about the best player to come out of his country since Park Ji-sung, who not only became the first Asian player to captain Manchester United, but also the first from that continent to find the net in three consecutive World Cup finals.
Heung-Min has the ability to go down in history for his motherland and definitely turn heads at this year’s renewal. His has pace to burn, is capable with both feet and is coach and true Korean legend, Hong Myung-bo’s best chance of getting out of the group. His ten goals and four assists for Bayer Leverkusen good enough to ensure a fourth-placed finish in the German top-flight, which also gave them a qualification place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. He was a straight replacement for the departing Andre Schurrle, who left for Chelsea and has slipped into the German’s place for less than half the £22m Leverkusen received for him. If he can transfer his form onto the world stage at the tender age of 21, he will become a force to be reckoned with and all the big players will be noting his name.
Among the supporting cast are defensive midfielder Ki Sung-Yong of Sunderland, who impressed in patches at Swansea and the Stadium of Light. While Mainz attacking midfielder, Koo Ja-cheol, will be doing more with the ball going the other way. They may not win the whole competition, nor will they better their fourth-place finish when they joint-hosted the tournament with neighbours Japan 12 years ago, but if they upset Russia in the opener, they could sneak the runners-up spot.
Algeria will not go to Brazil to lie down and they have a couple of talented individuals who will be looking to enhance their reputations on the biggest stage of all. Central midfielder Saphir Tader plays his club football in Italy for Inter and established himself in the Nerazzurri side, following his £5.5m from Bologna. If I were to compare Tader to players you familiar with, I would say Republic of Ireland and Everton’s James McCarthy, Granit Xhaka of Switzerland and Gladbach and Brazilian-born Italian Napoli star, Jorginho. His partner in crime will be Valencia forward Sofiane Feghouli who was chief assist-taker for Los Che with ten and in addition, chipped in with four goals. The only thing is, this Algeria squad is not represented by too much quality and at the back, they are liable to ship goals to all three group rivals – the only real bright spot being Napoli left-back, Faouzi Ghoulam. The road to Brazil was long, but their and return will be completed in half the time.
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