The World Cup is only five days old and already this year’s tournament is being heralded as the best in recent memory. Goals, skills and thrills have been the mainstay throughout an opening round of games that has produced just one largely forgettable draw; long may it continue. Tuesday promises three more mouth-watering ties as group H finally gets underway, while hosts Brazil get a chance to show that they don’t need to rely on the officials to prove that they are truly world-class.
Much-fancied Belgium kick things off against Algeria at 17:00 BST in what many predict will be a walk in the park. The Red Devils were undefeated in qualifying and boast a plethora of talent such as Premier League stars Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard; part of the so-called ‘golden generation’. Despite the World Cup being Belgium’s first major competition since 2002, a revolution of player development strategies has seen Belgium re-emerge as a football powerhouse and they are odds-on favourites to progress from the group as well as dark horses for the whole tournament. However in reality, the team is untested at this level and Algeria could prove tricky opponents. England fans know as well as anyone that the North Africans have the ability to frustrate well-fancied teams at the World Cup. Algeria have improved since that night in Cape Town and currently rank as the 22nd best team in the world. Talent such as Tottenham’s rising star Nabil Bentaleb give the North African’s hope that they can force an upset in Belo Horizonte as they hope to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time.
Brazil take to the stage for the second time at 20:00 BST and face a gutsy Mexico side in what promises to be a fascinating encounter. Albeit in opposing ways, both teams were affected by poor refereeing decisions in their opening ties and one can only hope that this isn’t the case in Fortaleza. Brazil – Neymar in particular – showed flashes of brilliance against Croatia and victory over their Mexican counterparts would put them well on their way to qualifying for the last 16. However, Mexico too showed that they will be no walkover with a 1-0 win over Cameroon that could easily have been 2 or 3. Mexico know that a result against Brazil could be crucial to their hopes of progressing to the next round with Croatia expected to beat Cameroon on Wednesday. Hopes will largely rest on the impressive Giovani Dos Santos with Manchester United forward Javier Hernández likely to remain on the bench.
Tuesday’s final game sees the arrival of Russia and South Korea in the second match of group H in Cuiaba. The Russians return to the World Cup for the first time since 2002 with hopes that they can reach the knockout stages for the first time. Under former England boss Fabio Capello, Russia have added steel to an exciting style of football and various strong performances saw them qualify ahead of Portugal, providing optimism that this is finally their year to excel. The 2002 World Cup was also significant for Russia’s opponents as current boss Hong Myung-bo captained the Taegeuk Warriors to victories over the likes of Italy and Spain on the way to the semi-finals of the competition. While hopes that they can emulate this success are strengthened by the fact that they are one of only six countries to appear at every world cup since 1986, South Korea’s vastly inexperienced squad and nervy route to the finals suggests that they could struggle to make it out of the group this time round.
Tuesday’s games are filled with uncertainty. Yet as the first round of games draws to a close and the second round begins, clues of who will qualify for the last 16 in this so far wonderful tournament will start to become clear.