By Andrew Cawthorne
BELO HORIZONTE Brazil (Reuters) - With a star-studded squad that makes a mockery of the old joke 'who can name a famous Belgian?', young and talented Belgium should breeze past Algeria in the Group H opener on Tuesday.
Maligned as a non-entity in the past their nation may have been, but now the soccer team trips off everyone's tongues: Thibault Courtois in goal, Vincent Kompany marshalling the back, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku terrorizing defences.
Easy qualification, and a pool of thrilling young talent that is the envy of Europe, have made Belgium the bookmakers' pre-tournament fifth favorites behind heavyweights Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany.
Yet it is their first World Cup since 2002, meaning the team lack experience on the big stage. And they have some frailties, such as erratic finishing and a lack of flying full backs.
Algeria come into the tournament looking underrated - who knew they were the highest-ranked African team? - and are probably happy all the pre-match hype is on their rivals.
"We've had the best preparations possible," said their quietly confident Franco-Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
The first target for the "Desert Foxes" is to improve on their humiliation at the South Africa 2010 finals when they failed to score a goal and came bottom of their group.
"We are also the only Arab team in the competition and we want to make absolutely sure we represent the country well and make them proud of us," Halilhodzic added.
Looking stronger than 2010, Algeria have constructed their side around French-born players drawn from the massive migrant population in Europe. Many of them switched allegiance after playing for France at junior level.
Hopes for goals rest on Islam Slimani, the 25-year-old attacker who was Algeria's footballer of the year in 2013 and became a folk hero among Sporting Lisbon fans after scoring the winner against Porto in March.
With no Christian Benteke due to injury, Belgium will start the similarly powerful Lukaku up front, though he took a worrying bruise to the ankle in a recent warmup.
The 21-year-old striker will be aided by Hazard, desperate to reproduce his scintillating Premier League form for the national side where he is yet to shine consistently.
Group H is the last to get into action in Brazil, leaving both sides anxious as the goals fly elsewhere.
"We are not really feeling the World Cup fever yet," said Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen.
"But after the opening game I'm sure it will be different."
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Editing by Nigel Hunt)
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- Eden Hazard
- BELO HORIZONTE Brazil
- Romelu Lukaku
- Vincent Kompany