World Cup 2018

Group H preview: Could James take Colombia to another quarter-final?

 • by Mark Thompson
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Group H is the closest World Cup group by far. Senegal, Colombia, Poland and Japan may not be teams one might expect to reach the very final stages of the tournament, but all are good enough to make it to the knock-outs.

With none of the six fixtures in this group a given, it will be the one to keep an eye on.

Senegal

The only previous time that Senegal qualified for the World Cup they reached the quarter-finals, a remarkable record. This time around, with Liverpool star Sadio Mané in the ranks, the Lions of Teranga looks like they could cause trouble once again.

It’s not just Mané, of course. Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly – previously a Chelsea transfer target – firms up the back line; Everton’s Idrissa Gueye offering midfield solidity; and several other decent attackers – Keita Balde, Diafra Sakho, and Oumar Niasse – could lead the line alongside Mané.

However, the team hasn’t been setting the world alight in qualifying or their international friendlies since then.

Though they beat South Korea 2-0 in June, they also lost to Croatia and, prior to that, went on a stretch of three draws against Uzbekistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Luxembourg.

They’re led by Aliou Cissé, the man who captained them during their memorable World Cup 2002 campaign, so maybe that lineage will help Senegal beat the odds and get that far again.

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Key stats

It perhaps says something about the side’s attacking potency – or lack of a consistent starting line-up – that their leading shot-taker in qualifying was Mané with a grand total of eight.

Out of the 31 teams who went through qualifying, Senegal made the smallest percentage of their possession regains in the middle third (42 per cent). This was made up for by a moderate share in the attacking third, and a large share (49 per cent) in the defensive third – so look for them to press a bit up top, but then drop back if the press fails.

Key man

Mané is the team’s biggest star, playing in more of a creative than goal-scoring role. He netted just once in qualifying while setting up three.

His differing role from club football is backed up by his historic records. In domestic football, he’s consistently scored between one in two and one in three (at Southampton, where he was less of a forward than at Red Bull Salzburg or Liverpool). For Senegal, his 14 goals in 49 appearances equates to one in three-and-a-half.

It’s also clear in his player persona during qualifying.

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Colombia

After a poor start to the millennium, Colombia are in their second World Cup in a row since qualifying for all three in the 1990s.

That is why coach José Pékerman insists just qualifying is important, regardless of performance upon getting to the tournament.

“Success of a country in the long term is measured by qualifying for the tournament,” he told World Soccer. “And by avoiding going years and years without qualifying; that is how you lose a generation, which subsequently then affects confidence.”

Colombia can certainly take confidence from their showing in 2014, where they reached the quarter-finals, and they should qualify from this group as well.

That said, it’s one of those tricky groups where any team could quite easily beat any other, and Colombia only avoided missing out on qualifying by a single point.

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Key stats

Colombia only scored the sixth-most goals in CONMEBOL qualifying (21), a suggestion that their reliance on James Rodríguez might not be ideal.

His principal support cast stuttered. Manchester United flop Radamel Falcao only took 2.3 shots per 90 minutes while Juventus flyer Juan Cuadrado averaged fewer than one key pass per 90; both will need to up their game at the World Cup if Colombia are to threaten a repeat of four years ago.

Key man

Rodríguez’s status as Colombia’s key man is hardly a question. After scoring in every single game at 2014’s World Cup, winning the Golden Boot, Goal of the Tournament and a big-money move to Real Madrid, he topped the goal-scoring (6) and assist-making (4) charts for his country in qualifying for Russia.

At just 26, he’s Colombia’s third-highest all-time goalscorer after Arnaldo Iguarán and squad-mate Falcao.

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Poland

Amazingly, for a country boasting world-class talent in Robert Lewandowski and third-place finishes in 1974 and 1982, Poland have only qualified for two World Cups since the start of the 1990s.

They failed to get out of the group in 2002 and 2006, and a tough draw, could see them suffer the same fate in Russia too.

However, after reaching the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 – only losing on penalties to eventual winners Portugal – and storming through qualifying, confidence will be high.

They won eight of their ten qualifying games, albeit in a relatively mediocre group, scoring 28 goals along the way. Lewandowski got 16 of those to top score across all confederations.

In their two most recent friendlies they shared nine goals with their opponents (a 2-2 draw with Chile and 3-2 victory over South Korea), but the one before that was a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in March.

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Key stats

A single player scoring 57 per cent of the nation’s goals in qualifying could turn out to be a worrying dependence on one player and if Lewandowski struggles, Poland are likely to too.

They also conceded a concerning amount of goals in qualifying (14), despite the relatively tame group. It means their games are chock-full of action, but as a team in a World Cup is that really what you want?

Key man

Bayern Munich star Lewandowski is his nation’s all-time top-scorer, unsurprisingly, and averages better than a goal every other game (55 in 95).

Behind him, the next most consistent scorer is Arkadiusz Milik (12 in 40) – a bit of a step down – and the Napoli man could only manage a single goal in limited minutes during qualifying.

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With a new coach in situ at the Santiago Bernabéu, Lewandowski knows a good tournament could finally see those Real Madrid transfer rumours come to fruition.

Japan

Aside from the United States, Japan might be the best example of a nation whose women’s national football team has outperformed the men.

Champions at the 2011 World Cup and runners-up in 2015, their record shows up the team who will be in Russia, who’ve never made it past the round of 16.

Still, qualifying for every tournament since 1998 is an impressive feat in itself (even if they were co-hosts in 2002), but they have travelled to Russia with turmoil in their wake.

After poor results in March friendlies, coach Vahid Halilhodzić was sacked and JFA technical director Akira Nishino stepped into the role.

Nishino is a respected and successful coach in Japan but his first two games yielded 2-0 defeats to Ghana and Switzerland.

This came more from shooting themselves in the foot than poor performances, giving away a penalty in each game, but is still not the best preparation for the World Cup

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Key stats

Japan are an ageing side, their key players all right at the end or just past what could be considered their peak years. Shinji Kagawa and Maya Yoshida are 29, Keisuke Honda is 31, and Shinji Okazaki is 32.

They conceded just seven goals in ten games during the latter stage of Asian qualifying, giving up only 7.9 shots per game, so they’re a tight side. But this takes away from the attack, where they only took 8.3 shots per game.

Key man

Borussia Dortmund’s Kagawa is one of several elder statesmen in the Japan squad, but will be the one pulling the strings from midfield.

In qualifying, he contributed nearly five shots per 90 minutes through his own attempts and those he set up. Unfortunately for him, they only resulted in one goal and one assist, but his luck could change in Russia.

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Standout fixture

The final game between Senegal and Colombia should be a good one. Both sides have an exciting star talent and good supporting casts, and could need to take something from the game to get through to the next round.

Tune in on 28 June at 3pm.

Prediction

  1. Colombia
  2. Senegal
  3. Poland
  4. Japan
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