Impact 2018 World Cup preview: Three-horse race in Group H

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Impact Sports’ preview of the 2018 World Cup continues with a look at Group H, made up of Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal. Yesterday’s look at Group G can be found here.

The final group appearing in this summer’s World Cup is Group H, which seems to be a toss-up between three teams for the two knockout-stage spots. While Japan might have had a chance in a more weighted group with less talented teams, the seemingly even playing field on which Colombia, Poland and Senegal are competing all but diminishes their chances of advancing from the group.

Colombia (FIFA ranking: 16)

Overview: Colombia were the surprise team of the 2014 tournament behind the breakout performance of World Cup-leading goalscorer James Rodríguez, making it to the quarterfinals before being defeated by host nation Brazil. Hoping to continue the form they began in Brazil, Colombia won’t surprise anyone this time around with their attacking intent.

Star player: Attacking midfielder James Rodríguez, Bayern Munich (Germany)

Colombia’s quarterfinal appearance in 2014 was their best finish ever, and that is due in large part to the play of Rodríguez. Winning the Golden Boot at 22 years old showed Rodríguez’s ability to perform on the sport’s grandest stage, and with a few more years of experience under his belt and a career revival on loan at Bayern Munich from Real Madrid, Rodríguez should head into the World Cup with confidence.

Biggest question: How will Colombia’s defense fare in this group?

Colombia has a number of veteran defensemen to play on their backline, but a couple young names stand out as well. Tottenham’s (England) Dávinson Sánchez and Barcelona’s (Spain) Yerry Mina could act as the breakout defensive pairing in this World Cup, if they are given the chance.

In net will likely be David Ospina, the backup goalkeeper for Arsenal (England) who has his fair share of roller-coaster quality play during his career. A strong, young defense won’t mean much if Ospina cannot perform at a level worthy of another deep run.

Best-case scenario: Rodríguez puts on another spectacle in Russia and helps Colombia to another quarterfinal appearance.

Japan (FIFA ranking: 61)

Overview: The last five World Cups have alternated between Japan not making it out of the group stage and losing in the round of 16. If that pattern is to continue, this year would be a round of 16 loss; however, it is hard to foresee that level of success for this Japanese team considering the level of competition they are up against.

Star player: Midfielder Shinji Kagawa, Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

Kagawa has been a staple in Dortmund’s midfield since 2010 besides the two seasons he spent at Manchester United. Pairing Kagawa up in the midfield with Keisuke Honda will grant them the playmaking ability to send forwards, specifically striker Shinji Okazaki, in behind opposing backlines. The key to Japan’s attack lies in the playmaking ability of Kagawa and the rest of the midfield.

Biggest question: How can Japan advance to the knockout stages?

Compared to the other three teams in Group H, Japan seems to be at the bottom of the totem pole. All three other teams have experienced forward lines that will constantly be a danger to score, meaning Japan’s backline needs to always be on high alert. Southampton (England) centerback Maya Yoshida will look to be the anchor of the Japanese defense; if the defense does not perform at the level needed to counter the attacking prowess of the group, Japan will surely not see the knockout stages.

Best-case scenario: Japan are able to surprise one team with a victory to make the round of 16, where they quickly lose.

Poland (FIFA ranking: 8)

Overview: Following a quarterfinal appearance in the 2016 Euros, Poland are aiming to impress in their first World Cup since 2006. Poland finished third in the 1974 and 1982 World Cups but have failed to make it past the Round of 16 since.

Star player: Striker Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich (Germany)

For years now, Lewandowski has been one of the best goal-scorers in the world. The Polish captain has 55 international goals to his name and will be looking to increase that tally in Russia.

Biggest question: Who will play in net?

Manager Adam Nawalka has a choice between two capable goalkeepers: Juventus’ (Italy) Wojciech Szczęsny and Swansea City’s (Wales) Łukasz Fabiański. While Nawalka could choose to alternate between the two ‘keepers throughout the tournament, it is likely whomever starts June 19 versus Senegal will be in net for the remainder of the World Cup.

Best-case scenario: Piotr Zielinski is the perfect (midfield) Robin to Lewandowski’s Batman and Poland fight their way to a quarterfinal appearance.

Senegal (FIFA ranking: 27)

Overview: If this Senegal team is anything, it’s fast. The multitude of forwards, especially wingers Sadio Mané, M’Baye Niang and Keita Baldé Diao, will be able to outpace opposing defenses both inside the box and on the wing. Premier League veterans Cheikhou Kouyaté and Idrissa Gueye hold down the midfield of this potentially surprising team competing in only their second ever World Cup.

Star player: Center back Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli (Italy)

While Senegal’s offense is very well-off in terms of a fast and agile attack, their defense has lacked a true test prior to this summer’s World Cup. In a group with Colombia and Poland, Senegal’s defense can rely heavily on their big man in the middle: Koulibaly. The 6-foot-5 Koulibaly has become a consistent and key member of Napoli’s starting 11, even scoring five goals this past Serie A season. With him planting himself in their penalty box and directing the defense, Senegal has a significantly better chance with Koulibaly in the team.

Biggest question: Are they able to be this year’s surprise team?

2014 had Group H compatriots Colombia making a surprising run to the quarterfinals, and there is consistently one team that shocks the rest of the world with their performance in the World Cup. Though Poland and Colombia are difficult teams to face early on in the tournament, don’t be surprised if Senegal is able to hold their own in Group H.

Best-case scenario: Like Colombia in 2014, Senegal becomes the 2018 World Cup’s surprise team and make a shocking run to the quarterfinals.

Prediction

  1. Poland 7 pts
  2. Senegal 5 pts
  3. Colombia 4 pts
  4. Japan 0 pts

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