Whilst World Cup Group H is not quite a group of death, for the four teams involved in it – Portugal, South Korea, Uruguay and Ghana – navigating a path out of it to the next round of the tournament will be by no means an easy task.
With just the top two teams progressing to the knock-out stages, there is very little room for error, especially as there is no obvious candidate as favourite.
There are also the unknowable’s – how will the players in each squad cope with the Middle Eastern conditions, and what physical shape are some of them in after what has already been a busy season for some of them with their clubs?
Portugal’s best showing at a World Cup came in the inaugural year they qualified for the finals in 1966, when they reached the semi-finals and eventually claimed third place. However, since 2002, they have only once made it beyond the round of 16 stage.
They had to come through the play-offs after they were pipped to top spot in their qualifying group by Serbia, but then beat Turkey and Macedonia (who conveniently for them had cleared the potential obstacle of Italy from their path.
Their manager Fernando Santos, now 67 years old, still has credit in the bank from having led them to their first international success when the won the Euros in 2016 – they also won the inaugural Nations League – but is under pressure for his job after their faltering qualification campaign.
Much of the spotlight will be on Cristiano Ronaldo, who, at the age of 38, will be playing in his last World Cup. He may have fallen out of favour with his club, Manchester United, but the world’s all-time international goal scorer still will have a key role to play as far as his country are concerned,.
South Korea famously reached the semi-finals of the World Cup the last time the tournament was staged on home soil. In 2002, when they co-hosted it with Japan, although there was more than a whiff of controversy about some of the refereeing decisions that appeared to benefit them then.
That though, remains the only time in their history that they have gone beyond the group stages.
Progress through to Qatar was relatively serene, although they did have to settle for second place in the third Asian qualifying round behind Iran.
Their manager Paulo Bento was formerly in charge of the Portugal team, and has been in charge for four years now, having replaced Shin Tae-Yong after the last World Cup.
Undoubtedly their star man is their captain Tottenham forward Son Heung-min, and their chances in the World Cup have been dealt a big blow after he damaged an eye socket playing in the Champions League against Marseille, and has since undergone an operation.
He is now in a race against time to be fit for the tournament and, if he does play, may need to wear a protective mask.
If any country can be said to have consistently punched above its weight in World Cups it is Uruguay. Despite a population of just 3.2 million people, they have own it twice, have finished fourth on three previous occasions and reached the last eight in Russia four years ago.
However, at one stage in their qualifying campaign it looked like they were destined to miss out in Qatar altogether, after four successive defeats left them seventh in South American qualifying.
However, the bold decision by the Uruguayan FA to sack long standing manager Oscar Tabarez and replace him with Diego Alonso paid rich dividends. The former Inter Miami boss oversaw a transformation in fortunes, and four straight wins helped ensure a third place finish, behind Brazil and Argentina, and ensure automatic qualification.
Luis Suárez may now be 35 years old, but he remains an integral member of the side, and scored in three of the four wins under Alonso. Back now in his native country, he recently helped his club side Nacional win the Uruguayan championship by scoring twice in the final against Liverpool. He will be hoping to mentor Darwin Nunez, who plays for one of his former clubs, Liverpool (the English version).
Ghana football fans do not need reminding about Suárez. He was very much the villain of the piece in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2010, when he handed on the line in extra time, denying the Africans a certain goal and the chance to become the first from their continent to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Although Suárez was shown red, Ghana missed the subsequent spot kick, and it was Uruguay who went on to win the penalty shoot-out.
The West African side failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but only just made it through this time.
They finished level in their qualifying group on points with South Africa, but advanced to the play-offs courtesy of having scored one more goal.
They then faced Nigeria over two legs, drawing both games. However, whilst the home match was a goalless stalemate, they were able to advance via the away goals rule after the game in Abuja ended 1 – 1.
They are managed by former Ghanaian international Otto Addo, who replaced the Serb Milovan Rajevać who paid for his job after the nation drastically underperformed at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. Meanwhile, Chris Houghton, the former Newcastle, Brighton and Birmingham boss is acting in the role of technical advisor.
Their captain is Thomas Partey and Ghana will be desperately hoping that the midfielder can bring his club form with Arsenal to the national team. They have also been boosted by the recent decision of Brighton full-back Tariq Lamptey to switch his international allegiance from England in time for the tournament.
The odds at the moment suggest that Portugal and Uruguay are the most likely to progress through to the next stage, followed by South Korea, with Ghana the outsiders of the quartet.
The opening games will see Portugal play Ghana, whilst South Korea faces Uruguay. Then it is Portugal against Uruguay and South Korea against Ghana, before the final set of matches.
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Written by Shantanu Gupta
- Group H image (https://estnn.com/)
- Cristiano Ronaldo (https://www.skysports.com)
- Paulo Bento (http://www.koreaherald.com/)
- Son (https://www.bbc.co.uk/)
- Luis Suarez (https://talksport.com/)
- Thomas Partey (https://www.skysports.com/)
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