In many of our past previews here at The Sports Geek, there’s often been an obvious standout team in each of the groups. For Group H, that simply isn’t the case – which is what makes it so fascinating as we prepare for the tournament’s kickoff a few days from now. There will be a ton of parity and evenly-played fixtures among these four sides, and really it wouldn’t surprise me all that much to see any squad advance to the knockout stage.
This group also features some thrilling talent in James Rodriguez from Colombia, Roberto Lewandowski for Poland, and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane from Senegal. Japan themselves have a nice blend of veteran talent, though I’d likely peg Group H as more of a three-team race. If you’ve been following along so far – you know I’m not all that high on many of the Asian sides at Russia 2018 and the relatively easy route they had to qualification. Among all the groups, this is likely the most erratic and tough to predict, but like we’ve been doing all week, we’ll do our best to! So read on below for the Group H team-by-team preview and key predictions for what promises to be a wildly entertaining group stage.
Odds posted are ‘To Win Group’
Colombia burst onto the world stage four years ago in Brazil with a dazzling performance. Many of the same names return at Russia 2018, albeit with more experience and poise on sport’s grandest stage. Much like this group itself, Colombia can be a bit erratic and unexpected at times. There are instances where the Colombians can beat France and draw teams like Spain and Brazil – but there are also times where they can lose to Korea and Paraguay. Which Colombia shows up to this year’s World Cup is a key question many experts are asking. If they play to their potential – a run to the quarter-finals is not out of the question. Though if they falter in the group stage, many questions will need to be asked about this generation, and the manager and his tactics.
Colombia will continue to be carried by the supremely skilled James Rodriguez. The Cafeteros are a pesky side that like to press and counter with pace when the time is right. James is still their main target, and he’ll be surrounded by some excellent talent at this World Cup. Look for the speedy Juan Cuadrado to play a key role in winning balls, and Radamel Falcao and Mateus Uribe are also excellent finishers that can supplement the attack of James Rodriguez.
That said, for all of their skill going forward, the Colombians tend to get mired in odd scoring slumps. A team this skilled shouldn’t have only netted 21 goals from 18 qualifying matches – but they did and it nearly cost them. The Colombians seem settled up top and at the back, but their midfield leaves something to be desired. Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar aren’t good enough to be counted on heavily, and manager Jose Pekerman might need to turn to his bench earlier than he’d ever dreamt of. Colombia is talented and has some really dynamic scoring threats, but poor linkage and service leaves something to be desired with this squad. Still, though, another deep run is certainly there for the taking.
Many are pegging Poland as the most complete side entering Russia 2018, but I don’t see it like that at all. The Polish might have the tournament’s most lethal striker in Robert Lewandowski, but truthfully beyond that – there isn’t much else within this squad. They were excellent getting through qualifying but did feast on some very weak sides. In the lead-up to Russia 2018 however, the Poles have not been supremely convincing, in losing to Nigeria, drawing Chile, and just squeaking by South Korea. And if Robert Lewandowski does get shut down, he’s going to need someone else in this side to step up.
One candidate to do just that is serving midfielder Piotr Zielinski. He’s carved out a nice role for himself in the squad and has served as a nice partner for Lewandowski. This is a rigid group, but Zielinski has enough creativity and poise on the ball to find their target man up front with regularity. That could happen often in Russia 2018 as I’d expect Poland to be quite forward-thinking, because of their vulnerability at the back.
Despite the fact that this is likely Poland’s best ever side to attend a major tournament, they still possess many flaws and have some blemishes entering Russia. For starters, the Poles allowed 14 goals in qualifying, a figure that is simply too high given who they were playing. Making matters even worse for them is the current status of their key defender, Kamil Glik. The rugged defender is a key cog, and without him, it remains to be seen what their back-line will look like.
Poland doesn’t defend all that well, but they have as great of a striker as there is in this tournament. They like to play forward-thinking soccer and that should be enjoyable for fans to see. While they’ll get quite a bit of goals at Russia 2018, they will also be vulnerable to goals against due to their shoddy defensive unit. Poland will be fun, but I doubt they’ll be all that effective.
Poland’s losses and uncertainties might work out well for the third contender in this group, Senegal. Typically African nations tend to be underrated at these global soccer tournaments, but don’t sleep on Senegal. Though some of their continent counterparts have very tough roads to advance to the knockout stage in Russia – Senegal sees a path where they could realistically top a competitive Group H. They play with a ton of pace and attacking ability, of course, led by the dynamic Liverpool talisman, Sadio Mane. Mane is an electric runner with shifty moves, and dazzling dribbling. His runs forward get fans up out of their seats and in this wide-open group, he’ll be counted upon for some big moments for the Lions of Teranga.
Where Senegal might struggle is their lack of consistency with tactics. Manager Aliou Cisse has yet to figure out a proper formation for his speedy side. He’s tinkered regularly in the lead-up to Russia 2018, and in a draw to Luxembourg and a loss to Croatia – Senegal didn’t look anywhere near what we’d expect.
They possess a lot of talent, and I’d venture to say that they have more on paper than Poland. But what can be troubling is that we haven’t seen them trot out a regular consistent form just before the tournament is going to begin. World Cup’s typically tend to bring out the best in teams, and I’m thinking the Senegalese pace and talent will take over.
They’re solid going forward with Mane, and young 20-year old revelation Ismaila Sarr. In the midfield, they have a couple of workhorses in Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate to win balls and provide proper distribution forward. And at the back, they have Napoli’s key defender Kalidou Koulilbaly – who might just have answers for Poland’s Lewandowski and Colombia’s Rodriguez.
Senegal’s games at Russia 2018 will be loads of fun. They’ll likely allow goals because of their open style, but they will generate a ton of chances as well. I think they have enough solid pieces that if Cisse can bring consistency to their tactics and approach – they could be a surprise and progress from a tough Group H.
Despite the chatter above about the great parity Group H will see, there has to be someone in last place – and that will very likely be Japan. There’s been a ton of turmoil heading into this tournament for the Japanese. A mediocre qualifying campaign and the lack of recognizable star talents in the lineup got their old manager fired, and now the new coach Akira Nishino has brought in beloved veteran players such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. That duo was left out of most key matches in qualifying and this was a sore spot for supporters and players of the Blue Samurai.
But despite welcoming back some old friends, changing your manager a couple of months before a major tournament does not seem like a recipe for success. They enter Russia 2018 a relative unknown as to how they’ll play or who fill feature in key roles. Japan has looked very mediocre over the past few months, struggling to score and get positive results. Before a friendly against Paraguay, the Japanese had gone winless in their last five contests, losing four of those. They looked anemic against Ghana, Ukraine, and Mali – three sides that couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup.
While Japan has some nice pieces going forward, it’s nowhere near enough to meaningfully compete against the other teams in this group. They’ve become an ageing side and one that lacks a real identity. Expect them to try to defend in a rigid team structure for many minutes of their first few games, though their defenders aren’t very good. I can’t see this team holding the likes of Mane, Rodriguez, and Lewandowski off of the scoresheet. In fact, the battle between the other three teams in the group is so fierce that they might all look to the game vs. Japan as the one in which they need to put up some goals in order to secure a higher goal differential.
While the Blue Samurai might enter Russia 2018 regarded as the best Asian team, that really isn’t saying much given the current poor state of soccer within that region. Expect the Japanese to be feasted on in what should be an otherwise intriguing Group H.