The final, and arguably most open, group of the 2018 World Cup kicked off on Tuesday – and it already looks like a four-way battle is underway.
Colombia and Poland were touted as the favourites to qualify for the knockout stages, Japan and Senegal have other ideas. Between the two matches, picking a winner from this group is now a near-impossible task – and likely Group G qualifiers Belgium and England are none the wiser as to who they might be facing next.
But what did we learn from the opening Group H clashes?
The early red card finished an already nervous Colombia
Colombia had already been hit with the injury absence of talisman James Rodriguez, but were still expected to have too much firepower and ability to see off Japan. However, their plans too an even bigger hit when Carlos Sanches was sent off for deliberate handball with less than three minutes on the clock.
The South Americans then had to gather their bearings, a man and a goal down, for the remainder of the first half but must have thought they were back in it when Juan Quintero’s free-kick squirmed in. Their sense of disarray proved too strong, however, and now they are facing down the barrel of early elimination already.
James didn’t look altogether fit when he entered the fray on Tuesday – they best hope he has recovered by next weekend.
Japan refuse to accept their assigned tag of group rollovers
Having changed managers recently, not much was expected of Japan in this tournament. Indeed, the decision of the new boss Akira Nishino to put his faith in the old guard of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki after their near-phasing out under the old regime could have backfired badly.
Instead, Japan produced a display of tremendous determination, twice going ahead against a team that were expected to begin their campaign with a handy victory. An early penalty from Kagawa gave them a lead that they weren’t expecting, and ten-man Colombia came hard at them and equalised, but the Asian side were full value for their late winner from Yuya Osako (assisted by Honda).
Japan are very much now in the running to make the last 16.
Senegal might be carrying the hopes of Africa
Before the tournament, the worry was that Aliou Cisse’s conservative approach might be a tough too suffocating for what could potentially have been an exciting, vibrant, attacking side. After this match, however, few will be questioning Cisse’s approach going forward.
It was compact, disciplined and still able to cut Polan open at times – in essence, the manager’s tactics were spot on and, as a result, Senegal looked the strongest off all the African sides in terms of performance and finishing. With Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Nigeria all failing to win their opening match, Senegal have outperformed them thus far.
Poland look unsure of their tactical setup
Having conceded far too many goals in qualifying, Poland manager Adam Nawalka publicly toyed with the idea of implementing three at the back for this clash. However, he opted for four in the end – and it might be the last time he does that.
Senegal looked dangerous on the break against a two-man Polish centre defence sorely missing injured Kamil Glik. It was only when Poland moved to that three-man rearguard that they looked to effectively stifle the Senegalese attack and cause some serious problems up front.
Expect Nawalka to maintain this approach against Colombia next weekend.
Poland v Colombia has become the most pivotal match in this group
By the quirk of the fixture calendar, Colombia face Poland next in a clash that will likely all but eliminate at least one of the group favourites. With both sides desperate to claw back some pride in the face of an opening day defeat, not to mention getting their campaign back on track, it’s going to be an interesting occasion with both sides throwing everything at the win.
In the other game, Senegal and Japan can relax that bit more but they’ll be all to aware that victory will almost certainly guarantee either a place in the knockout stage and a shot at (in all likelihood) either England or Belgium