The last in our 2018 World Cup group-by-group previews looks at Group H, featuring Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal.
Having reached the last eight in 2014, Colombia will be hoping for a repeat performance – as will Senegal in their first World Cup since 2002. Poland, meanwhile, have qualified for the first time since 2006, while Japan will be aiming for a much better campaign than their poor showing in Brazil four years ago.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 16th
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-Finals (2014)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Quarter-Finals
One to Watch – Davinson Sanchez: Selecting a defender who went to a Premier League club for £42m last summer as ‘one to watch’ might seem a bit redundant, but there is still plenty of intrigue in how Sanchez performs in Russia this summer.
After an impressive debut season with Tottenham Hotspur, the 22-year-old is now expected to replicate that form for his country and take charge of what is a very young central partnership alongside Barcelona’s Yerry Mina. His concentration and ability to play out from the back will be crucial in a side that expects to attack more than it defends.
Verdict: Colombia will, once again, be expecting big things from James Rodriguez. The playmaker was their shining light in Brazil four years ago and hopes are high that he can replicate that magic in Russia. Striker Radamel Falcao, meanwhile, will be raring to go after missing out four years ago.
The midfield is disciplined, the central defence is solid (if a bit young) so no problems there, but goalkeeper David Ospina has been making some big errors lately and that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Colombia are the favourites to win this group, and the presence of James alone probably, on paper at least, gives them that edge ahead of Senegal and Poland.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 8th
Best World Cup Finish: Third Place (1974, 1982)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Piotr Zielinski: Two years on from a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign, Zielinski is Poland’s great hope for this tournament. Lewandowski is the champion goal-getter, but the Napoli midfielder will (hopefully) be the one in the centre pulling the strings.
A fantastic passer of the ball, neat dribbler and capable of lashing one from long range, Zielinski is a much more confident and rounded player than he was in France two years ago. The 24-year-old is ready to be the creative hub of this side and realise his potential on the biggest stage.
Verdict: The lack of balance in this side is almost impressive. Lethal in front of goal (thanks, mostly to the phenomenal Lewandowski up front), they managed to concede 14 goals in qualifying – for context, no team that finished in the top three of any of the other groups conceded more.
Manager Adam Nawalka is keen to improve that defensive record while maintaining the attacking threat, and has toyed with the idea of implementing three at the back in order to achieve that. How the players respond to that will be key; if they can tighten up, Lewandowski’s goals could see them through. However, if they are still capable of conceding at will, Colombia and Senegal will punish them.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 27th
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-Finals (2002)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did Not Qualify
One to Watch – Keita Balde: Very much a wanted man last summer, things haven’t gone quite to plan for Balde since completing a €30m move from Lazio to Monaco. Nonetheless, the 23-year-old remains one of the national side’s biggest threats and can put his frustrating club form to one side.
A fast winger with terrific skill and great finishing ability, Balde is a prime example of why Cisse has to allow this team to be more attacking. Along with Sadio Mane, he can pose a devastating threat – particularly to a defence as shaky as Poland’s.
Verdict: Back at the top table after a 16-year wait, Senegal are primed to make a big impression at this World Cup with a nicely balanced squad. The pacy attacking threat of Balde and Mane is complemented by the defensive resilience of Kalidou Koulibaly and midfield presence of Idrissa Gueye and Badou Ndiaye.
However, manager Aliou Cisse has a tendency to be that bit too conservative with the players at his disposal, and it often feels like the offensive prowess of this side is slightly blunted. If Cisse lets this side off the leash, they have a strong chance of winning this group. As it is, they should be fancied to make qualify for the last 16.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 61st
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Naomichi Ueda: A relative newcomer to the senior international setup, Ueda may have to bide his time before being thrown into the deep end of a World Cup finals – though it depends on his manager’s preferred approach.
The 23-year-old is quick and comfortable on the ball, which feeds well into an attacking philosophy, and with the experienced Maya Yoshida next to him, it could be the chance for the Kashima Antlers defender to make a name for himself.
Verdict: Although Spain eventually took the crown for the biggest act of managerial turmoil ahead of this World Cup, Japan’s decision to sack Valid Halihodzic and replace him with Akira Nishino just two months ago was hardly the ideal preparation.
As it is, Nishino is still learning on the job, though in Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki he does at least have some threatening attacking options at his disposal. However, the tactical changes the new manager has implemented in order to make the team more attacking have had mixed results, and one gets the sense that this regime is nowhere near ready for the challenge ahead.
Prediction: There could genuinely be a three-way scrap for top spot in this group, and that’s what makes it one of the most intriguing. Colombia are probably the most balanced team but Poland and Senegal both have the tools to cause the South Americans problems, and possibly even beat them.
That said, Colombia should still have just enough to win this group, and while Poland’s leaky defence will let them down if Senegal are brave enough to attack them, Robert Lewandowski’s goalscoring ability counteracts that to some degree. Japan, meanwhile, are in too poor of shape to cause many problems here.