football

World Cup Preview: Group H

June 12, 2018

- Grant Whittington

We close our preview of the 2018 Russia World Cup with a comprehensive look at Group H, which is arguably one of the most interesting groups in the whole tournament. While there is no tournament favourite here, the group includes excellent sides like Poland and Colombia and it’s hard to predict who will prevail.

We’ll look at this closely below and try to determine which of the four participants are likely to qualify.

Poland
In many ways, Poland are a little like England when it comes to major tournaments. More specifically, while they tend to perform exceptionally well in qualifiers, they struggle when the time comes to perform on the biggest stage.

Having said that, this represents the Poles first appearance at the finals since 2006, while they’ve not progressed from the group stages since 1986. They did finish third in 1974 and 1986, however, so they at least have pedigree in the tournament’s history.

They certainly managed to qualify in fine style this time around, winning eight and losing just one of the 10 games and scoring a hefty 28 goals in the process. This saw them top their group and qualify automatically for the opening phase in Russia.

Poland will kick-off their campaign in Moscow on June 19th, as they take on African qualifiers Senegal. Then comes a mouth-watering contest against Colombia in Kazan on June 24th, before the Poles take on Japan in Volgograd on 28th.

In terms of key men, it’s hard to look beyond Robert Lewandowski, who scored a tally of 16 goals in qualifying that was more than any other player in the world. Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik is also a key performer even at the tender age of 23, while his link-up play with Lewandowski is truly exceptional at times.

Our Verdict: Poland are 23/10 to make the quarter-finals for the first time since 1982, and we believe that this represents genuine value. We’re just backing them to top the group here, with Lewandowski’s goals crucial to their chances of doing so.

Senegal
The 2002 World Cup was truly memorable, thanks largely to a Senegal side that made their tournament debut in Japan. Having beaten then-holders France in their opening match and reached the quarter-finals, it seems a shame that they’ve failed to qualify for the showpiece event since.

However, the 2017 AFCON quarter-finalists managed to qualify for Russia with relative ease, winning of their six matches and drawing the remaining two. This included one of the most controversial qualifiers in history, as Senegal’s 2-1 defeat to South Africa was overturned after the referee awarded the latter a penalty for a handball that never occurred.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) intervened to order a replay (that Senegal won 2-0), while banning the referee involved for life for what it described as “match manipulation”.

Altogether, this means that they should arrive in Russia is confident mood, with their opening game against Poland set to be extremely entertaining. Senegal will then take on Japan in a decidedly winnable fixture at the Ekaterinburg Arena on June 24th, before doing battle with Colombia in Samara on June 28th.

The electric Liverpool striker Sadio Mane remains Senegal’s key weapon in attack, as while he scored only once in qualification his pace and movement are perennially threatening. He forms part of an exciting attack that also includes Monaco’s brilliant forward Keita Balde Diao, who is coveted by several top clubs and can do damage to even the best defenders.

Our Verdict: Ultimately, Senegal have a strong chance of qualification, while some bookies are even quoting them as 9/2 to win the group. We think they’ll do battle with Colombia for second, however, and their clash on the final matchday could prove pivotal.

Colombia
While the 2001 Copa America winners enjoyed a stellar 2014 tournament, their World Cup record leaves something to be admired.

In fact, they’ve only qualified for five of 21 tournaments since its inception in 1930, while their 2014 run (which ended with a defeat to Brazil) represented the first time they’d reached the quarter-finals.

They built on this foundation by qualifying in fourth place in the CONMEBOL, eliminating Chile and condemning Panama to a play-off in the process.

While their clashes with Poland and Senegal are sure to be keenly contested and are difficult to call, La Tricolor will be expecting to beat Japan when the two nations clash at the Mordovia Arena on June 19th.

This is where their outstanding attacking players can come to the fore, with Bayern Munich’s on-loan midfielder James Rodriguez arguably the pick of the bunch. He top-scored in Brazil 2014 with six goals, while his guile and threat from midfield cannot be ignored.

The rejuvenated Radamel Falcao will also feature prominently in attack, while Spurs’ powerful centre half Davison Sanchez provides pace and leadership in defence.

Our Verdict: Colombia are sure to be there but we think that they’ll have their hands full with an exciting and emerging Senegal side. Much will depend on whether Falcao can replicate his club form at world level, as otherwise Colombia may struggle to score goals.

Japan
Then we come to the rank outsiders Japan, who lack world class individuals but boast a strong team dynamic and a genuinely well-marshaled defence that could be tough to breach in Russia.

The nation qualified for the finals with a 2-0 win over Australia in the penultimate group qualifying match, which ultimately left the Aussies needing a play-off against Syria. Ultimately, they topped the group by a single point from Saudi Arabia, while conceding just seven goals and keeping an impressive four clean sheets.

Interestingly, while this may only be Japan’s sixth appearance at the World Cup finals, all of these have come consecutively since making their debut in 1998. This means they’re now a fixture of the tournament, so they can’t be taken lightly by their Group G rivals.

One of Japan’s key performers is the Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki, whose tireless running and movement is truly impressive and creates space for others. He also only needs six goals to become Japan’s second highest scorer, which is quite an achievement by anyone’s standards.

Our Verdict: As rank outsiders, it’s hard to imagine Japan qualifying for the knockout stages in Russia. In fact, we’d be surprised if they managed to win a game, as for all their defensive prowess they lack genuine quality in midfield and the final third.

 

 

 

 

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