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FIFA World Cup 2018: Group H Preview

Written by: Debajit Sarma

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This is easily the most unpredictable group of this World Cup in Russia.

All roads lead to Russia, as the FIFA World Cup kicks-off in less than four days from now. The last of the eight groups, Group H has in it Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal. The battle for qualifying into the knockout stages from this group promises to be a riveting affair, as all the four nations look equally strong and so the games between them have the potential to be among the most entertaining in the group stages of the competition.


Colombia



Factsheet

Last world Cup FinishQuarterfinals (5th overall) at Brazil 2014

Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinals at Brazil 2014

Manager: Jose Pekerman

Confederation: CONMEBOL

Captain: Radamel Falcao

FIFA Ranking: 16

Likely Formation: 4-2-3-1

Road to World Cup

Colombia blew hot and cold over the course of their qualification campaign and made the plane to Russia by finishing fourth in the 10-team round-robin format, the last automatic qualifying spot. That was secured on the final matchday with a 1-1 draw with Peru, who finished fifth and made the playoff spot. The game courted controversy as players from both sides appeared to talk amongst themselves to play for a draw as both teams stood to profit from it.

Manager

The Argentine, Jose Pekerman will be Colombia’s manager for the second straight World Cup, having marshalled the nation’s best-ever campaign in the competition at Brazil 2014. At 68, he will be one of the competition’s eldest statesman.

Pekerman was in-charge of his native Argentina in the 2006 edition in Germany, guiding the Albiceleste to a quarterfinal finish. In his third World Cup as a coach, he would be attempting to go one step beyond his previous two attempts.

Squad

 

Players to Watch

The star turn of Colombia’s World Cup adventure in 2014, James Rodriguez is once again the main man for Los Tri this summer. His five goals in Brazil won him the tournament’s Golden Boot award and earned him a move to Real Madrid that summer. The paucity of game-time at Madrid forced James to move to Bayern Munich on a loan deal and he proved it be a good decision by having an impressive debut campaign for the Bavarians, scoring eight goals and providing 14 assists in all competitions. James was also the top scorer for the Colombians in qualifying, with six goals.

At 32, he may not be getting any younger, but no team can dare underestimate Radamel Falcao’s predatory instincts in front of goal. After an insipid two years in England with Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, he is back to his goalscoring groove scoring 54 goals in the last two seasons with AS Monaco. On his day, the Colombia captain can easil punish opposing defences if he’s afforded even half-chances.

Centre-back Davinson Sanchez is fresh off a very impressive debut season for Tottenham Hotspur and would be the player to look out for in the Colombian defence. He has put in strong performances with great consistency for the last few seasons with Atletico Nacional, Ajax and now Spurs and it is hard to believe that he is still only 21.

SWOT Analysis



Japan

Factsheet

Last World Cup Finish: Group Stage (29th overall) at Brazil 2014

Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 at Japan-Korea 2002, South Africa 2010

Manager: Akira Nishino

Confederation: AFC

Captain: Makoto Hasebe

FIFA Ranking: 61

Likely Formation: 3-4-2-1

Road to World Cup

Japan absolutely bossed their group in the second round of qualifying, winning seven out of eight games, scoring 27 goals and conceding none. However, the Blue Samurai didn’t have it that easy in the decisive third round of qualifying against opponents like Saudi Arabia, Australia, UAE and were made to sweat a bit.

Nevertheless, Japan managed six wins, two draws and two defeats to top their group by a single point and secured qualification for Russia.

Manager

With just two months remaining for the World Cup, the Japan Football Association (JFA) sensationally dumped Vahih Halilhodzic who was the Blue Samurai manager since 2015. The sacking was a result of a series of disappointing performances and growing player discontentment under the Bosnian.

In that moment of crisis, JFA Technical Director, Akira Nishino was promoted to the job of manager for the World Cup. The 63-year old last managed a football team from the dugout in 2015, when he was with Nagoya Grampus. He has tasted success as a manager mainly with Gamba Osaka, with whom he won Asia’s biggest prize in club football, the AFC Champions League in 2008.

Squad


Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Metz), Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), Kosuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol)

Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), Tomoaki Makino (Urawa Reds), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), Gotoku Sakai (Hamburg), Gen Shoji (Kashima Antlers), Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers), Wataru Endo (Urawa Reds)

Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), Takashi Inui (Eibar), Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Takashi Usami (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale)

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), Yuya Osako (Werder Bremen), Yoshinori Muto (Mainz)

Players to Watch

Shinji Kagawa will be carrying a lot of Japanese hopes on his shoulders in Russia. The 29-year-old attacking midfielder is one of Asia’s best players and has played an important role in Borussia Dortmund’s success in the last decade. Kagawa is an asset to have in attack for any team and is a sight to behold when in full flow.

The former Asian Footballer of the Year who has won league titles in Germany and England has been capped 89 times by his country scoring 29 goals. Kagawa will have a vital role to play if his team makes a mark in Russia.

Kagawa’s namesake, Shinji Okazaki has won 112 caps for Japan and is the third highest goalscorer of all-time for the Blue Samurai with 50 goals. Though he has only featured sporadically for Leicester City this season, he has looked a threat with goals. The 32-year-old has a penchant for producing match-winning moments, which is a crucial trait to have in competitions such as the World Cup.

Makoto Hasebe will be captaining Japan for the third straight World Cup. The 34-year-old veteran is fresh off a successful season with Eintracht Frankfurt, helping the Bundesliga side win the DFB-Pokal. The defensive midfielder with his presence in the middle of the park would bring in a calming effect to his team’s play.

SWOT Analysis



Poland

Factsheet

Last World Cup Finish: Did not participate

Best World Cup Finish: 3rd place at West Germany 1974, Spain 1982

Manager: Adam Nawalka

Confederation: UEFA

Captain: Robert Lewandowski

FIFA Ranking: 8

Likely Formation: 3-4-3

Road to World Cup

Poland didn’t have much difficulty in negotiating their way to World Cup qualification, winning their group with relative ease. The White and Reds topped Group E finishing five points above second-placed Denmark, winning eight of their 10 games, drawing and losing one each.

Manager

The 60-year-old former Poland international midfielder will be managing the national side at the World Cup. Nawalka managed a host of clubs in Polish football’s top tier before taking up the job with the national side in 2013.

It is under him that a Polish side has made it to a World Cup for the first time in 12 years. The tactician also masterminded the White and Reds run upto the quarterfinals at Euro 2016, the country’s best-ever showing in Europe’s top competition.

Squad

Players to Watch

Poland’s captain and striker extraordinaire Robert Lewandowski will be the face of his team at the World Cup. Considered as one of the best strikers in the world for some years now, the Pole is back from yet another prolific season for Bavarian giants, Bayern Munich. Lewandowski also netted 16 goals in 10 games for Poland in qualification and emerged as the top scorer across all the confederations in the qualifying phase.

The 29-year-old looks likely for a move away from Munich in the summer and would want a successful World Cup to secure a transfer to another top European club

Capable of playing in the centre of midfield and also behind the strikers, 24-year-old Piotr Zielinski has emerged as an important member of an increasingly improving Napoli side over the last two seasons. He is a neat and tidy midfielder who has the ability to beat a player and play the right pass.

The 30-year-old Kamil Glik will be the leader in the Polish backline. The centre-back is a great tackler and is also known for his aerial prowess. Ever since signing for AS Monaco two seasons ago he has emerged as their standout performer in defence, helping the club win the Ligue 1 title in 2016/17.

SWOT Analysis


Senegal

Factsheet

Last World Cup Finish: Did not participate

Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinals at Japan-Korea 2002

Manager: Aliou Cisse

Confederation: CAF

Captain: Cheikhou Kouyate

FIFA Ranking: 27

Likely Formation:  4-3-3

Road to World Cup

Senegal made the cut for Russia quite comfortably, going through their entire qualifying campaign unbeaten. The Lions of Teranga met Madagascar in the second round of qualifying and comfortably swept them aside 5-2 over two legs.

In the third round of qualification, Senegal entered Group D as the highest seeded team where they were pitted against Cape Verde, South Africa and Burkina Faso. They managed four wins and drew the other two games as they finished top of their group with 14 points, five above the second-placed Burkina Faso.

Manager

The only other time Senegal qualified for the World Cup was in 2002 where they stunned the football world with their run up to the quarterfinals beating holders France en route. Aliou Cisse was the inspirational captain of that Senegalese team that made history.

16 years on, Cisse will yet again be with the Lions of Teranga but from the technical area, to guide the likes of Sadio Mane to emulating the heroics of 2002. The dreadlocked 42-year-old served as assistant coach to three previous managers of the national team from 2012 to 2015 and in between briefly took charge as caretaker manager following Amara Traore’s sacking.

From 2015 onwards, Cisse has been put in-charge of the team and apart from masterminding Senegal’s return to the World Cup, he also managed to take them to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, losing to eventual champions Cameroon on penalties.

Squad


Player to Watch

Sadio Mane is the star in the Senegal squad and his performances will go a long way in determining the fortunes of his team in Russia. Powerful and super quick, Mane has developed into one of the best wingers in the current game and an asset for his club Liverpool.

Last season, he was a part of a prolific front three along with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, that scored 91 goals among themselves in all competitions and carried the Reds to the final of the Champions League. Mane scored 10 goals in Europe including in the final.

The strapping Kalidou Koulibaly was one of the star performers in Napoli’s excellent Serie A season. He is a commanding presence at the back and also a threat while attacking from set-pieces. He will be the player Senegal will build their defence around.

The 26-year-old centre-back has emerged as one of Serie A’s best defenders and a number of European heavyweights are pursuing his signature.

Another player to watch out for is 28-year-old Idrissa Gueye who was one of Everton’s standout performers in an otherwise mediocre season. A combative midfielder in the fold of his coach Cisse, Gueye has been the top tackler in the Premier League over the last two seasons. An underrated performer, he played every minute of Senegal’s qualification campaign for the World Cup.

SWOT Analysis


Fixtures

19 June 2018- Colombia vs Japan, 5:30 pm (IST)

19 June 2018-Poland vs Senegal, 8:30 pm (IST)

24 June 2018- Japan vs Senegal, 8:30 pm (IST)

24 June 2018-Poland vs Colombia, 11:30 pm (IST)

28 June 2018-Japan vs Poland, 7:30 pm (IST)

28 June 2018-Senegal vs Colombia, 7:30 pm (IST)

What to Expect

There isn’t much of a gap in strength between all the four teams and this is what makes this group very intriguing and difficult to predict. The race to the knockout rounds looks to be a three-horse race between Poland, Colombia and Senegal. Japan seem to be the weakest team on paper, but they will also fancy their chances against these teams.

Published: Mon Jun 11, 2018 08:15 PM IST

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