10 Pivotal Factors That Will Decide FIFA World Cup 2014 Group H
Three of the four sides that will contest Group H at the upcoming FIFA World Cup are among the top 18 teams in the world.
The other, South Korea, is ranked 55th by FIFA but has been to each of the previous seven World Cups—reaching the semi-finals in 2002 and round of 16 in 2010.
In other words, this bracket will be a close-run thing.
The slightest variable could determine which teams progress to the knockout stages and which go home, and over the next 10 slides we will examine 10 of those pivotal factors.
10. Eden Hazard’s Transfer Saga
There’s nothing quite like a transfer saga to distract a player from his World Cup duties.
In Brazil, Eden Hazard will no doubt be pondering his rumoured move to Paris Saint-Germain, as reported by The Guardian's Paul Doyle, and after Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho claimed the attacker wasn’t willing “to sacrifice himself” for his club side, Barcelona are thought to be monitoring the 23-year-old’s situation as well, as per El Mundo Deportivo (h/t Metro).
Hazard, it goes without saying, is one of Belgium’s most important players. And if his head isn’t fully into the competition, it’s likely he and his international teammates will have a disappointingly brief World Cup.
9. Retirement of Park Ji-Sung
South Korea haven’t played a major tournament without Park Ji-Sung since before the 2002 World Cup, when the 21-year-old midfielder worked his magic for the tournament co-hosts.
Not only did he score a vital winner against Portugal in the group stage, but he also converted the winning penalty against Spain in the quarter-final as South Korea progressed to the last four.
In Brazil, however, the Taegeuk Warriors will be without their former captain, who retired as his country’s eighth most-capped player in 2011.
Bolton Wanderers winger Lee Chung-Yong will be expected to provide increased leadership at the 2014 World Cup.
8. Belgium’s Weight of Expectations
Belgium were seeded into the group stage and are presently ranked 12th in the world.
A popular choice as a dark-horse favourite in Brazil, they are, on paper, too good to be an underdog and just might end up doing something special.
OddsShark has the Red Devils listed as fifth favourites to win the World Cup—ahead of such nations as England, France and Italy.
Belgium are under pressure to perform, and how they handle the weight of expectation will surely have a thing or two to do with their showing at the competition.
7. Nabil Bentaleb’s Breakout Season
Nabil Bentaleb was born in Lille, and as recently as 2012 he turned out for the France under-19s.
In February 2014, however, he declared for Algeria, and on March 5 he played the full 90 minutes of the Fennec Foxes’ 2-0 friendly win over Slovenia.
Just 19, Bentaleb only broke into the first team at Tottenham Hotspur this past season, but in 18 matches in all competitions he immediately became one of the London club’s more important midfielders.
No doubt Algeria will benefit if his form continues at the World Cup.
6. Alan Dzagoev Making Russia Tick
Alan Dzagoev is only 23 years old, but already the CSKA Moscow man is one of Russia’s most experienced midfielders.
A forward-thinking playmaker who provides quality service to the attack, Dzagoev starred against Poland and the Czech Republic at Euro 2012 before Russia were dumped out of the tournament by Greece.
With Andrei Arshavin left out of the squad, Dzagoev’s importance will only be heightened.
If he can pick up where he left off at the Euros, Russia might just become one of the World Cup’s surprise packages.
5. Islam Slimani Leading Algeria’s Line
A relative unknown less than a year ago, Islam Slimani joined Sporting Lisbon from Algerian outfit CR Belouizdad for just over £260,000 and promptly became an important player at the Portuguese giants.
In March, the 25-year-old scored the winner in a crucial match against Porto, and he completed his first season in European football with eight league goals.
Now he’s ready to take on the world.
Slimani has tallied 10 goals in 20 matches for his country, including five in World Cup qualifying, and will be Algeria’s primary threat of goal in Brazil.
4. South Korean Goalkeeping
South Korea qualified automatically for the World Cup after finishing second to Iran in AFC Group A, but their goals-against record was worse than third-place Uzbekistan, who went into the play-off round.
First-choice goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong has struggled at club level in 2014, where his inconsistent play has partially caused Suwon Bluewings to drop to sixth in the table after five rounds.
The 29-year-old was also dropped recently by Taegeuk Warriors manager Hong Myung-Bo, but with only five caps between understudies Kim Seung-Gyu and Lee Bum-Young, it’s likely South Korea will have to ride their luck with Jung in Brazil.
3. Andrei Arshavin Omission
Just as Samir Nasri’s omission from the France squad came as little surprise to followers of French football, so did Andrei Arshavin’s exclusion raise little controversy among Russian football fans.
The 33-year-old attacker has rarely featured under manager Fabio Capello, and he last found the back of the net for his country more than two years ago.
Still, Arshavin has 17 international goals to his name, and Russia could well be a side that struggles to score in Brazil.
If they get past the group stage no one will even think of the Zenit St. Petersburg man. But it’ll be another thing entirely if they fail to progress to the round of 16.
2. Christian Benteke’s Absence
No one’s ringing alarm bells just yet, but Christian Benteke’s absence will almost certainly be felt by the Belgian national team at the 2014 World Cup.
Before suffering an Achilles injury in early April, the Aston Villa striker had established himself as one of Red Devils manager Marc Wilmots’ preferred strikers.
He had scored six goals in 17 international appearances, and his club form had only suggested there was more offense in store if Wilmots continued to play him.
But with the 23-year-old sidelined, Romelu Lukaku stands to be the only Belgian striker with any experience who gets on the plane to Brazil.
It could end up being a fatal lack of depth.
Few sides stand to benefit from World Cup travel schedules as much as Belgium.
While most teams will fly incredibly lengthy routes over the course of the tournament, the Red Devils will merely traverse the Belo Horizonte-Rio de Janeiro-Sao Paulo corridor.
Russia will journey nearly twice as far as Belgium ahead of their Matchday Two encounter at the Maracana, and South Korea’s trip from Porto Alegre will again be significantly longer than the European outfit’s jaunt to Sao Paulo.
Belgium's travel scheduling is as accommodating as it gets at this tournament, and it could well lead to valuable points in what stands to be a competitive group.