2018 FIFA World Cup: Group H
The Teams: Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan
Group H has the potential to be a very intriguing group because there is not one stand-out team. Poland are one of the favourites to top the group with Bayern Munich superstar Robert Lewandowski leading the line, but they are far from unbeatable. Colombia also have a good chance, with another Bayern Munich player, James Rodriguez, as their leading light. Senegal will be hoping Sadio Mane can transform his form for Liverpool onto the international stage whilst Japan will be looking to their midfield duo of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa to lead their charge. One thing for certain is that all of these teams have the ability to qualify, but unfortunately for them they will probably be met by either Belgium or England in the second round, meaning progress beyond the last 16 seems improbable.
Pre tournament odds: 66/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Group E Winners
Adam Nawalka’s side topped Group E in the European qualifiers breaking records in the process: Robert Lewandowski scored an astonishing 16 goals in 10 games to rewrite the history books, as Poland qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 12 years. However, they will be keen to prove they are not a one-man team and in truth, this assertion could prove to be correct. Poland have a very strong spine of Wojciech Szczesny-Kamil Glik-Piotr Zielinski and Lewandowski, with a host of other international stars at their disposal including Dortmund right-back Lukasz Piszczek and Napoli forward Arkadiusz Milik (I hope I spelt all of them correctly).
Nawalka tinkered with his formations during qualifying, mostly deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation, but has experimented with 3-4-3 in recent months. Look for the pace of Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Blaszczykowski on the flanks supplying the goods for Lewandowski up front. One thing for sure is that if Lewandowski continues his unstoppable form for club and country in Russia, Poland will not only fly through their group, but cause big problems for whoever lies in wait in the last 16.
Pre tournament odds: 40/1
Method of qualification: CONMEBOL Round Robin Fourth Place
Colombia were one of the standout teams of the 2014 FIFA World Cup as they played some sparkling football on the way to the quarter-finals. James Rodriguez announced himself on the international stage with a series of superb displays as Los Cafeteros lit up the tournament in Brazil. This time around, all eyes will be on Rodriguez to see if he can pick up where he left off in 2014. Having been revitalised at Bayern Munich after a couple of underwhelming seasons at Real Madrid, look out for him to add to the six World Cup goals he bagged last time around.
Like Poland, it would be lazy to label this team as a one-man team. There is a familiar look to their defence if you come from North London: Arsenal’s David Ospina will start in goal and Tottenham’s Davison Sanchez will partner Barcelona youngster Yerry Mina in the heart of the back 4. Manager José Pékerman favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation during the qualifiers and their recent friendlies (they just scraped through, finishing fourth in the South American group behind Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina) with Rodriguez in the number 10 role behind their stalwart striker, Radamel Falcao. Pékerman likes to play to his team’s strengths: a solid defence before punishing teams with their pacey counter-attack.
Perhaps the biggest issue for Colombia is their inconsistency in front of goal. They only scored 21 times in their 18 qualifying matches and their last two friendly games resulted in 0-0 draws against Australia and Egypt. Their forward line will have to be firing on all cylinders if they want to repeat their success of 2014.
Pre-tournament odds: 150/1
Method of qualification: CAF Third Round Group D Winners
Under the stewardship of Aliou Cisse, Senegal topped African Group D on their way to qualifying for Russia. Interestingly, this is only Senegal’s second appearance at the World Cup finals, their one previous showing was in 2002 when they reached the quarter-finals with Aliou Cisse as their captain. Funny how things turn out in football.
Much is expected of their talisman, Sadio Mane, who enjoyed an excellent last few months for Liverpool, even scoring in the Champions League final. Cisse likes to operate in a 4-3-3 with Mane on the right and Monaco’s Diao Balde Keita on the left, but has shown flexibility in recent matches whilst deploying 4-4-2 and 3-4-1-2 formations as he looks to get the best out of Mane.
However, it isn’t all about the Liverpool star. Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye and Napoli’s superb centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly will be key if Senegal are to progress. Senegalese experts and fans are quietly confident that they can make a decent run in the competition, even matching their finish in 2002. However, their lack of big tournament experience and quality off the bench could hurt them in their quest to make it out the group stages.
Pre-tournament odds: 200/1
Method of qualification: AFC Third Round Group B Winners
Japan qualified as winners of Asian Group B under the eccentric Vahid Halilhodzic who completely changed the way Japan played and picked its players. He regularly left out their two biggest stars, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. The unrest he caused led to his sacking in April and Akira Nishino was drafted in to replace him, subsequently re-selecting Japan’s best players.
Nishino’s first job will be to try and get the best of Honda and Kagawa, whilst re-introducing Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki back into the fold after his spell in the international wilderness (another one who fell victim to Halilhodzic’s decision-making). Whilst they do certainly have some flair in midfield and attack, and a reasonably robust defence with Southampton’s Mayo Yoshida at the helm, the truth is that this Japan side is poor. You only have to look at some of their recent results to see how limited the squad is. After losing 4-1 to South Korea, they could only muster a 1-1 draw with Mali, before losing to Ukraine and Ghana – two teams not even at the World Cup.
Japan have been blessed with a slightly fortunate draw, and have the ability to spring a few surprises, but they will have to play above and beyond their own expectations if they are to finish in the top two.
Barring some magic from Sadio Mane, Colombia and Poland should make it out the group in comfortable fashion. I fancy June 24th to determine who tops the group, when the two favourites meet in Kazan. I could easily see this game ending in a draw, but due to Poland’s superior firepower (AKA Robert Lewandowski), I suspect Poland’s goal difference will be the difference in the end. Senegal could beat any of the other three teams, but their lack of major tournament experience will count against them, and I think the only 3 points they will collect will come against Japan. Speaking of which, I can’t see Japan winning a single game, and I believe they will be propping up the table come the end of the group stages.