Consider Group H the World Cup's gift to JAPAN. The host with the most is in the group with the least, and passage to second round - and perhaps the quarterfinals - looks well within grasp.

Experienced RUSSIA will have plenty to say about this, and so might BELGIUM. If the pressure of playing at home doesn't affect performance, Japan could be one of the Cup's surprises.

Frenchman Philippe Troussier has the finest generation of Japanese talent at his disposal, but injury, illness and difficult seasons for players abroad haven't helped preparations. Japan's speed and tactical superiority must be sharp to overcome physical disadvantages and shaky defense.

Midfielders Shinji Ono, a UEFA Cup winner at Feyenoord, and Parma's Hidetoshi Nakata are pivotal in a side boasting a talented midfield quintet but lacking firepower up top. It's a young group, with several veterans of Troussier's other Japanese successes: runner-up at the U-20 World Cup in '99, champion at the 2000 Asian Cup, impressive quarterfinalist at the Sydney Olympics.

Anything less than the second round will be a huge disappointment for the Japanese. And Russia is so certain of its second-round chances that Coach Oleg Romantsev promises to resign should it fail to reach the final 16. The Russians have disappointed before.

This time they've got a strong, veteran group blessed with creativity and chemistry. Yegor Titov and Alexander Mostovoi lead a superb midfield, and forwards Vladimir Beschastnykh and 19-year-old Marat Izmailov are capable of big things.

The back line is old and susceptible to quick attacks, but goalkeeper Ruslan Nigmatullin was heroic during qualifying. How a lack of action at Verona has impacted his game remains to be seen.

What Belgium lacks in talent it makes up for with grit: Veteran coach Robert Waseige possesses a big, well-organized squad of grinders, and no foe will relish 90 minutes with the Red Devils.

This is the Belgians' sixth successive World Cup - no country has qualified for more without booking passage as host or reigning champion - and their only failure to reach the second round was four years ago, when they tied all three group matches. Expectations at home are that they'll reach the final 16 this time.

To do so, they must overcome the loss to injury of defensive leader Joos Valgaeren. Forward Emile Mpenza, slowed by an ankle injury, must produce. Vital are captain Marc Wilmots and playoff hero Gert Verheyen.

TUNISIA is the no-hoper of this Cup, a squad in turmoil with plunging morale and few strengths. ''Weakness everywhere, tactically, physically, technically, mentally,'' raged Henri Michel - he bailed out as coach in March - after the Carthage Eagles went goalless at the African Nations Cup. Ammar Souyah and Khemaeis Laabidi inherited the job.

Tunisia's is an aging side possessing limited imagination. The sudden retirement of goalkeeper Chokri El Ouaer deprives it of its best leader. Only forward Ziad Jaziri and midfielder Zoubeir Baya offer anything special.

by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French

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