We conclude our group-by-group preview of the World Cup with Group H. No clear favorite, although it does seem Colombia hold a slight edge over Poland, Senegal and Japan.
A first World Cup for Poland since 2006, hoping to make it past the group stage for the first time since 1986, which then capped off a dominant 12-year stretch that included two third place finishes. The current version of The White and Reds comes after a terrific qualifying campaign, winning 8 of 10 matches and losing just once (4-0 to Denmark), while Robert Lewandowski was the UEFA qualifiers top scorer; unsurprisingly, he’s at the heart of Poland’s hopes and aspirations for this tournament.
What is there beyond the suddenly unsettled Bayern Munich striker? The big names are Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jakub Błaszczykowski and Arkadiusz Milik, but all three had disappointing club seasons, mostly due to injury. Wojciech Szczęsny hardly played for Juventus while Łukasz Fabiański didn’t survive with Swansea in the Premier League. Even Lewandowski faced criticism at Bayern for his Champions League misfiring.
Poland have a veteran squad, including backbone leaders like Kamil Glik of Monaco and Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek, while 23-year old Karol Linetty of Sampdoria is hoping to find a more meaningful place on this team than before, but their out-of-form names will be required to take it up a notch if Poland are to break their knockout stage drought.
Four years ago, Colombia reached the quarterfinals only to lose against Brazil, but perhaps were the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament. James Rodriguez earned a big-money move to Real Madrid, but eventually fell out of favor with Zinedine Zidane, leading him to a successful season in Bayern Munich uniform.
This time Radamel Falcao is fit and coming off a terrific season with Monaco. Colombia have plenty of depth up front, with Carlos Bacca also rearing for more opportunities, while Juan Cuadrado, Luis Muriel and Boca Juniors’ Wilmar Barrios will probably impress. Colombia’s defense isn’t as deep or filled with top level quality in all slots, but the duo of Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina is trustworthy, and right back Santiago Arias of PSV is worth keeping an eye on as well.
Weakness? Colombia tend to lose against bigger sides. They were beaten by Brazil four years ago, they lost most of their big matches in the South American qualifiers. If this is the best side La Tricolor has ever fielded, they’ll need to prove it by beating one of the favorites to go all the way in the tournament. Luckily for them, it won’t be until the knockout stage that they’ll have the opportunity of playing such a side.
One of the more intriguing teams heading into the tournament. Senegal had a difficult time qualifying from the African group stage, but boast some sensational talent besides Sadio Mane, who is one of the best wingers in the world these days.
The Lions of Teranga rely on a wealth of forward options but mainly on their midfield, consisting of Idrissa Gueye, captain Cheikhou Kouyate and Alfred N’Diaye, all playing club football in England. Besides Mane, the talented Moussa Sow, Keita Balde, M’Baye Niang and Diafra Sakho are available for Aliou Cisse to choose from.
Senegal lack balance, also in number of players belonging to each area of the pitch. This is a side that sometimes shows less than ideal discipline, and relies too heavily on individual talent. A good start (begin vs Poland) will probably make the difference between another historic run and scintillating football, or a disappointing return to the tournament.
Japan are always in the World Cup, at least since 1998, but rarely make an impact. This time? It’s hard to see it happening, mainly due to the coaching change in April, as Akira Nishino replaced Vahid Halilhodžić, with the Bosnian sacked following the 4-1 loss to South Korea and his comments which rubbed the Japanese FA the wrong way.
So what do the Samurai Blue have to show us in Russia? A side filled with veteran players who most are making it to their third World Cup. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Yuto Nagatomo are still here. Shinji Kagawa as well. But it does feel as if Japan lack top level talent like they had in the past, with very few players coming from meaningful minutes at the top level of European club football.
Colombia will likely finish first in this group. The key to second place will be determined in the opening match between Poland and Senegal. Hunch? The Poles are a tad better tactically, which will provide the advantage. Japan will finish fourth in the group.