World Cup Preview: Group H
In perhaps the tightest call of all of the groups, it may come to the attacking qualities of each team’s star player. It could be Poland’s Robert Lewandowski or Japan’s Shinji Kagawa. It could be Senegal’s Saido Mane or Colombia’s James Rodriguez.
Gregor Kerr previews Group H of the FIFA World Cup.
Poland were impressive at Euro 2016, reaching the quarter-final stage and missing out from the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. It is then not a surprise that they topped their qualifying group with 25 points.
Key to that qualification is of course Robert Lewandowski. The big striker disappointed at the Euros, with just a single goal in his five games. Since then however he is enjoying perhaps the best few years of his career form wise, scoring a record 16 goals throughout qualification.
His club form has been just as red-hot this season with 41 goals to his name. One of his criticism though has been his lack of form in the biggest games, namely the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid where he disappointed over both legs. Perhaps though against weaker defences we will see Lewandowski at his ruthless best in Russia.
His ally in attack has been Napoli’s Arkaduisz Milik, with Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki providing service just behind. This four-man band were crucial to Poland reaching their first World Cup finals since 2006.
Their defence however inspires less. Centre-back Kamil Gilik is ever-reliable for Monaco, but an injury means the Polish will be lacking his security at the back. The goalkeeping position is also one area of concern, with Lukas Fabianski dropping down to the Championship with Swansea City and Wojciech Szczesny playing second fiddle to Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus. It’s difficult to see either’s confidence being sky-high.
The South Americans are a side that many neutrals took to their heart in Brazil four years ago. It may have been the energy and flair of the side, their celebrations or the breakthrough of a superstar in James Rodriguez. Their run to the quarter-finals and the football they displayed was memorable.
This year they look equally as strong. In defence they have one of European football’s most exciting young centre-backs in Davinson Sanchez. Aged just 21 he took to Premier League football like a duck to water for Tottenham, making 40 appearances in his maiden season in England. Barcelona’s Yerry Mina is also young and looks ready to form a partnership with Sanchez for years to come.
In midfield they have struggled for creativity however. An experienced pairing of Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguiar may be solid but it lacks energy and excitement. Colombia scored just 21 goals in 18 qualifying matches and a slow midfield may have been behind that.
Attacking-wise is where the bigger names come into play. After years of torment through injury Falcao may lack the pace once had, but his experience and link-up play has helped him reach the top level once again. Behind him is the big name from 2014, perhaps not just for his country but for the entire tournament. James Rodriguez may not have had the predicted career path after struggling to cement himself at Real Madrid, but a season on loan at Bayern Munich has rejuvenated the midfielder.
For the Bavarians he has played a slightly deeper role, but don’t be surprised to see Rodriguez operating just behind Falcao at this World Cup.
Senegal have long been starved of a World Cup appearance ever since their stunning run to the quarter finals in 2002. On that run they beat the world champions France in their opening game and become just the second ever African team at the time to make the quarter-finals. The captain of that run, Aliou Cisse, has exceeded expectations again now as manager of Senegal by taking them to this year’s finals.
On both wings is where the danger is packed. On one side is Saido Mane, who comes off the back of scoring in the Champions League final and playing a pivotal part in that run to Kiev. His speed, agility and goal-threat makes him one of the most unique and coveted players in football currently. He did only score twice in qualifying however, but his Liverpool form saw him score 20 times last season.
On the other side is Monaco’s Kieta Balde, a similar style of player to Mane with his pace and dribbling ability. Balde has long been a target of many European clubs, but it was Monaco who landed his signature last summer, and he returned the favour with 8 goals last season from the wing.
In defence and midfield they have other recognisable names in Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli’s central defender who has been linked with Chelsea. In midfield they have the Premier League duo of Cheick Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye to break up the midfield.
They certainly don’t lack quality, but a lack of experience may prove to be their undoing if they fail to escape their group.
A 2-0 victory of Australia in their penultimate qualifying game helped Japan seal a spot at the finals, topping their group. Just weeks before the tournament their plans were thrown into somewhat disarray when manager Vedran Halilovic was fired from his position. New manager Akira Nishino took little risks in selection, opting for more experience than youth.
After winning the league with Leicester City in 2016, the country’s superstar is Shinji Okazaki. His pace and constant movement makes him a pest and a difficult player to keep nailed down. His other partner in attack is Takuma Asano, on loan at Stuttgart from Arsenal and looking to force his way into the Gunners side.
Their midfielders are more recognisable from previous World Cups. Keisuke Honda lit up both 2010 and 2014 with a collection of lovely goals, but his legs have gone somewhat since then. The same could be said for his midfield partner Shinji Kagawa who featured just 19 times in the league for Borussia Dortmund last season.
1st. Colombia – 7 points.
2. Poland – 5 points
3. Senegal – 4 points
4. Japan – 0 points