2014 World Cup: Breaking down Group H

 

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(SportsNetwork.com) - All eyes in Group H will be on Belgium as Mark Wilmots' team look to make their mark on the World Cup with a young and talented squad.

Belgium's last trip to the knockout round at a World Cup came in 2002, and it was also the last time the team played on soccer's biggest stage.

But this side enters the tournament as the firm favorites to top Group H and will head to Brazil with high expectations, firmly entrenched as dark horse candidates to make a deep run in the competition.

Things seem to have fallen perfectly into place for Belgium over the past few years and the club heads to South America with a fleet of outstanding young talent ready to shine on the big stage for years to come.

Leading the offensive charge for Belgium is Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard, who, at just 23, has experience leading a team as he guided Ligue 1 side Lille to a domestic title before arriving at Stamford Bridge.

Since his move to London, Hazard has become Chelsea's most potent offensive weapon. He has showed an impeccable ability to collect the ball on the flanks and dance around defenders to create his own scoring opportunities.

Helping Hazard with the offensive burden will be Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas, who were teammates with Everton this past season.

Lukaku had an outstanding season with the Toffees on loan from Chelsea and will be motivated to show Blues boss Jose Mourinho he deserves a place in Chelsea's starting 11 and could be the breakout player of the tournament.

Behind Belgium, the runner-up spot in Group H is truly up for grabs. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Algeria, Russia or South Korea advance to the knockout round.

Russia hasn't made a World Cup appearance since 2002, but manager Fabio Capello will bring an efficient, disciplined team to Brazil that prides itself on defense and has an excellent chance to reach the second round for the first time under the current geopolitical climate.

Offensively, Russia will be led by CSKA Moscow's Alan Dzagoev along with Alexander Korkorin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

Dzagoev is just 23 years old with 30 caps to his name and he burst onto the international scene at 17 during Euro 2008. He is a technically-gifted player, who netted three goals during the '08 Euros, but can be a discipline problem, having been sent off five times in his career.

Kerzhakov is a prolific scorer who led the team in goals during the qualifying campaign and regularly puts the ball in the back of the net for Zenit St Petersburg, while Korkorin netted 10 goals in 22 appearances last season for Dynamo Moscow.

South Korea boasts a pair of top-quality midfielders in Sunderland's Ki Sung- Yueng and Cardiff City's Kim Bo-Kyung who are in the primes of their careers at 25 and 24 years old, respectively.

Ki pulls the strings in the attack from the middle with smooth control and is also a significant threat on set-pieces, while Kim made a move to Cardiff City from Japanese side Cerezo Osaka after some inspired performances at the 2012 Olympics and has done well for a Cardiff City side that was relegated from the Premier League.

Algeria's key piece is midfielder Sofiane Feghouli, who plies his trade for Valencia in La Liga. At just 24 years of age, Feghouli has blossomed into Algeria's most creative player. He began his international career on the right wing but has since moved into a more central role.

The Desert Foxes are certainly a long shot to get out of the group, but it is possible if results go their way.

Game of the Group: Belgium vs. Russia (June 22)

Given the relative weakness of the group, Belgium should have little trouble advancing, but question marks remains as to how the young Belgians will perform under the pressure of a World Cup.

The Red Devils' first group-stage game is against Algeria, which will likely provide little challenge, but facing Russia will allow Wilmots to see how his team does against better competition.

Russia's first game is against South Korea, and while that could go either way, Capello will get his first opportunity to see the progress of his team against a hungry Belgian outfit that wants to make a big splash in front of the world.

Player to Watch: Eden Hazard (Belgium)

Hazard is easily the most dynamic offensive player in the group, and despite his age, he is mature beyond his years, primed and ready to lead Belgium to victory.

His experience at Stamford Bridge will allow him to thrive in Brazil. He was recently voted the Professional Footballers Association's Young Player of the Year and has shown an uncanny ability to dance around defenders with the ball at his feet and create his own scoring opportunities.

Hazard has proven he can score on the international level, having netted six goals in 45 appearances for the senior squad and appears ready to spearhead a potent Belgian attack.

Breakout Player: Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)

Lukaku struggled to get on the field at Chelsea, but thrived under Roberto Martinez on loan at Everton last season. He netted an impressive 15 goals in 31 appearances on Merseyside.

Standing 6-foot-3 and seemingly made of muscle, Lukaku is big and powerful in front of goal and will give opposing defenses nightmares on set pieces. He is pacy and makes excellent runs off the ball, but can power his way to goal with the ball at his feet just as well.

Lukaku has also shown the ability to score on the big stage, as he has netted six goals in 28 appearances for Belgium and could be a sleeper candidate to win the Golden Boot.

Predictions:

Group Winner: Belgium

Far and away the best team in Group H, the Belgians should have little trouble topping the group. Hazard and Lukaku should torch Algeria, South Korea and Russia. The challenge becomes more difficult when they reach the knockout round and face the runner-up from Group G.

Second Place: Russia

Capello should have learned from his failure with England at the 2010 World Cup and will have his team ready to play. Kerzhakov and Korkorin are proven scorers, while defenders Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski are solid in the center of the defense. Russia isn't likely to score a ton of goals, but the team should go through on the strength of its defense against Algeria and South Korea.

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