Who are they?
The great entertainers. I know it’s a weird thing to say about Poland but it’s also true. They scored 28 goals in 10 games during qualifying, including 16 (SIXTEEN) for Robert Lewandowski.
It was a tougher group than some too. Poland took it with ease in the end and only lost once to fellow qualifiers Denmark. What really made them entertaining was that they also conceded plenty, 14 in total. Poland played out great-to-watch 3-2 and 4-2 wins against the Danes and Montenegro, plus a back-and-forth 2-2 draw with Kazakhstan. Keegan’s Newcastle then? Not quite, but this group is perfectly set up for some potentially lovely games.
Lewandowski is obviously brilliant but far from their only weapon going forward. Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski will likely be feeding him as the playmaker and Sampdoria’s Karol Linetty will probably be the one to operate as their quarterback. There’s competition in the squad too – Linetty is one of two very good deep lying midfielders alongside Grzegorz Krychowiak and most positions in the first team have decent cover. Even Lewy has Arkadiusz Milik breathing down his neck for a striking role.
So lots of reasons to be cheerful, but it’s worth a word of caution. They didn’t concede those goals by accident. Kamil Glik is a great central defender but there is a tendency for all of the back four to make the odd individual error. They are also dependent on a core of players who are all the wrong side of 30 and some are coming off the back of a season – or two – plagued by injuries.
That great depth on paper is not quite as strong in reality. Poland’s golden generation are growing old together, and this is probably the last World Cup for anything up to ten of this squad.
So back them to score goals but also concede against good sides. If Group D is the most interesting, Group H feels like it could be the most entertaining. Sit back and enjoy, anything could happen.
Manager – Adam Nawalka
Nawalka will know this squad inside out after five years in charge. People who know him talk about a meticulous nature despite a fairly simple tactical approach.
Nawalka’s experience will be vital for correcting any bumps along the road. Poland face competition for automatic qualification here and he will be glad to have the group’s weakest looking team – Japan – in their final game. Nawalka will allow some freedom within his structure to get the most out of that brilliant centre-forward, and the knockouts are very achievable if they keep scoring.
Key Man – Robert Lewandowski
Goals; that’s what Lewandowski gives you. Don’t ask him to cover a defensive midfielder, don’t clutter his mind with intricacy, just tell him to shoot on sight. And he will.
If Poland wobble in this group they will look to score their way out of it and it’s handy to have the single best centre forward in world football to do it. Milik as Plan B is pretty handy too.
What should we expect?
Qualification and potentially England ahead. They will have to be at their best in this group and it will be probably be alive until the final match day, meaning a knock-out game may see one or two sets of tired legs come into play.
Who are they?
We’ve been open in their preview about how excited we are to see what Nigeria can bring to Group D, and fellow CAF qualifiers Senegal are very interesting here too. No continent’s football is as needlessly stereotyped as Africa’s and at this World Cup each of their qualifiers plays in a distinct and largely unique style to hopefully kill that myth forever. So what can we expect from Senegal?
Excitement, he said knowing that was actively setting you up for three 0-0 draws. Senegal tend to play quickly knowing at which end of the pitch their strengths lie. This sometimes works to their detriment when teams deprive them of the ball and they end up looking long to try to get on the front foot.
When it works they can overwhelm teams, but when it doesn’t they can end up struggling for rhythm. Senegal will go for it in all three games here, and while defensive frailties may cost them, the intelligence and speed in their attack could take them far enough.
The star is Sadio Mane, but there’s plenty of interest for those who tend to only watch teams they can get a sense of familiarity from. Mane can look for Premier League current and alumni Mame Biram Diouf, Diafra Sakho or M’Baye Niang if he needs support. Behind them there are others – Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate. The wild card is Monaco’s Keita Balde, who can be absolutely sensational but needs to be fully match-fit if he’s going to make an impact.
This group will be open and if common wisdom suggests Colombia and Poland qualifying we suggest to the gamblers among you there might be value in backing the Lions of Teranga. They are inconsistent, but when they’re on it they can beat anyone ahead of them – particularly in a one-off knockout game.
So defensively they need to be at their best, attacking wise they need to be at their fastest, and attitude-wise they have to stay calm if they go behind. If they can do all three then they could make the quarter-finals as they did in 2002. If form deserts them they might be up against it in the group. The unknown is exciting, and Senegal’s inconsistency represents that more than most.
Manager – Aliou Cisse
Cisse, captain 16 years ago, has been popular throughout his time despite being a disciplinarian. He wants his defence to be the platform around which everything else is built but has the misfortune/good luck to be blessed with a far stronger attack. Some disappointing results in recent friendlies have belied better performances than some would suggest, but he will need Mane as the outlet and to set the pace.
In flight they’re really fun and Cisse is a good enough tactician to make the small adjustments needed to get them into each game from the start. Qualification was handled well and with a flexibility that gave them a more defensive 5-4-1 as a fall back from the 4-3-3 they favour. Both are formations that don’t really sit well with common definitions as they were stacked with nuance, but you can guarantee the BBC and ITV will have them in those regimented positions.
Cisse is a good coach and so far looks to be managing the personalities too. He’s giving them every chance of having a decent run.
Key Man – Kalidou Koulibaly.
Napoli’s best central defender will need to be Senegal’s as those around him are just not at the same level. He’s great on the ball, ferocious in the tackle, and having chosen Senegal over France I would not only have had him in the French squad; he’d be playing. .
What should we expect?
Expect the unexpected, could/should be fun.
Who are they?
Currently a team in transition, and so in an open group they’re the real outsiders. This isn’t a generation blessed with truly world-class players and a few in this squad have played too little football this season. There is the chance to see a Shinji Kagawa or Keisuke Honda cameo, which is always nice, but it does feel like Group H has two teams that are better and another who can beat anyone. That feels like a bridge too far for Japan.
The big news and the unknown factor is their manager Akira Nishino. Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic was fired in early April after a series of bad results and open hostility between him and the media. Going back, qualification had been relatively scare-free and Japan managed to get the big results in their group against Saudi Arabia and Australia when it mattered.
However, there had been troubling indications in the alarming amount of players and systems Halihodzic used and Japan’s better players were being asked to play out of position to accommodate worse ones.
There were fall outs, including a spat with Honda and an awful performance in the home defeat to the UAE. After a run of friendlies in which Japan not only lost games but were completely outplayed, it was time for a change. The final straw came after Halihodzic was openly critical of the JFA.
To change managers in the April before a World Cup summer is drastic in the extreme but you can see why he JFA did it. Any hope of a bounce has been destroyed by defeats in their warm-up games against Ghana and Switzerland.
It’s not all glum though. Tournament football is very different and Nishino is a positive and well-liked force who knows his players have under performed. If he can get better out of those who have been trusted like Yuya Osako up front and Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Usami either side, and get the likes of Honda adding some experience and guile there is quite a bit more to come from this squad. A tall order with no time on his side and fourth place calling, but we’ll see.
Manager – Akira Nishino
Nishino was the only choice to take the job and comes with a wealth of experience as a J-League and Asian Champions League winner. He was working as Technical Director of the JFA before taking the role and the only reservations come from the lack of time to make real changes having not managed a team for nearly three years. Nishino’s the man for the longer term regardless of what may be some short-term pain.
Key Man – Keisuke Honda
Japan’s squad has a few good players – the full backs Yuto Nagatomo and Gotoku Sakai can be really lively on form, Maya Yoshida is a solid defender and goal threat on set pieces, Shinji Okazaki is always worth watching – but they lack a bit of sparkle.
Honda is therefore key, as both he and Kagawa can provide that spark at their best but Honda is the bigger personality. On form he’s a joy but the legs are going. This needs to be one last hurrah.
What should we expect?
Not much, but more than they have showed in the build-up.
Who are they?
As with Poland, it would be fair to say Los Cafeteros know where their strength lies and will plan their entire campaign around it. Why wouldn’t you with Radamel Falcao and the name’s James, James Rodriguez at your disposal?
At their very best Colombia are a handful for anyone. The issue is their predictability, because if you nullify James’ playmaking and limit Falcao’s shooting positions they don’t have much else to trouble you.
Colombia still have the core of the 2014 team plus World Cup debutant Falcao to call on. He’ll be pushed for his place by Luis Muriel and Carlos Bacca, and manger Jose Pekerman may go for two up front if they’re struggling. Their creativity really is centred around James, with only Juan Quintero as cover, but Juan Cuadrado and José Izquierdo will be lively on the wings if picked.
Mentally, the recent friendly win against France will have done Colombia the world of good but there is no denying that they have a habit of coming unstuck against good sides. In 2014 they lost to that fragile Brazil team and then in the gruelling world of CONMEBOL qualifying they failed to beat them, Uruguay or Argentina in six games.
Colombia have all the firepower to go toe-to-toe with anyone but often retreat into their shells. Pekerman will know this is a mental issue as much as anything else, and will be desperate to deal with this inferiority complex in time for the knockouts.
Defensively, Colombia have excellent options – Cristian Zapata, Davinson Sanchez, Yerry Mina, Santiago Arias and Frank Fabra – but lack a great understanding between any four of them. They can grind, the two goalless warm-up games against Australia and Egypt proved as much, but they want to play with a flourish and be the ones asking all the questions. A good start on match day one against Japan is essential.
Manager – Jose Pekerman
Now six years into working with arguably Colombia’s best ever generation, he’s acutely aware of the need to get this team to peak at the right time. Japan are there for the taking in game one, Poland have to be treated with the highest respect in game two and then they must hope they’ve done enough to avoid the stress of a knockout final group game against Senegal.
Colombia should qualify and that brings its own pressure. Pekerman was excellent in 2014 at dealing with Falcao’s injury and getting the best from his star man. They’ll need to do a bit more of everything and Pekerman’s planning must be perfect.
Key Man – James Rodriguez
Now 26 and with career kickstarted again after a frustrating time in Spain, James enjoyed an excellent season with Bayern and we know he loves a World Cup. He is absolutely vital to Colombia’s game plan and was their main man in qualifying with six goals and four assists, plus man-of-the-match performances away in a vital game against Chile and their very last game against Peru.
James has freedom within the structure to create and they’ll need him to be at his best in this group. If you can keep laying on chances for any one or two of Colombia’s strikers they’ll score and everything will go through him. I’m really excited about seeing James on the world stage again, and you should be too.
What should we expect?
They will believe anything other than qualification from the group is failure, but then they have to get past their own mental issues to progress.