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Poland

Not since the great Grzegorz Lato have Poland had a goal scorer quite like Robert Lewandowski, and the prolific striker looks ready to unleash on the World Cup.

Are Poland one of the most underrated teams in international football? They comfortably topped their group in European qualifying, finishing five points clear of Denmark and rattling home a group-best 28 goals in the process. And much of their new-found success comes down to the form of Lewandowski, who broke European goal scoring records by smashing home an unprecedented 16 goals in qualifying.

It’s been twelve years since Poland last qualified for the World Cup finals, and Lewandowski – who is rumoured to be on his way out of Bayern Munich – will be eager to make up for lost time. He’s aided by a steady cast of familiar faces, including Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, Monaco hard man Kamil Glik, Borussia Dortmund defender Łukasz Piszczek and Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik.      

But Lewandowski is the star man. An astonishing eight of his goals came from the penalty spot in qualifying, but even that belies the fact that Lewandowski is one of the best penalty takers in world football. And he’s incredibly effective at everything else too – scoring goals with both feet, providing brute strength in the air, hammering home free-kicks and proving deceptively effective at finding space against the toughest of defences. But can he do it at a World Cup?

Poland’s coach Adam Nawałka knows all about international football, having played at the 1978 World Cup and previously been an assistant coach of the national team when Leo Beenhakker was in charge. And Nawałka will know that for all Lewandowski’s undoubted talent, he needs fellow veterans like Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Błaszczykowski to do their part.

And Poland will fancy their chances of doing exactly that in an open-looking group. Much will depend on Lewandowski. If the prolific striker fires, the Poles may prove hard to beat.

Head coach: Adam Nawałka

Key player: Robert Lewandowski (pictured)

One to watch: Arkadiusz Milik\

Senegal

It feels like an eternity since Senegal’s last World Cup finals appearance in 2002, but the Lions of Teranga are finally back on the biggest stage of all.

They were relatively untroubled in African qualifying, despite going two goals down to minnows Madagascar in the Second Round, before eventually prevailing 5-2 on aggregate. And their Third Round group was blown wide open by South Africa’s struggles, as Senegal scrapped their way to the top with four wins and two draws – even if there was an ugly footnote, with their original 2-1 defeat to South Africa in Polokwane annulled over claims of match-fixing. In fact, Senegal didn’t really hit their stride until the penultimate match day, downing Cape Verde 2-0 in the islands, beating South Africa 2-0 in a rearranged fixture in Polokwane and backing up to beat the South Africans 2-1 again four days later thanks to an injury-time winner in Dakar.

Qualification sparked scenes of wild celebration in the Senegalese capital, however coach Aliou Cissé is experienced enough to know that the job is only half done. Cissé was captain of the great Senegalese side that reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup, and he’ll know a relatively friendly draw represents a golden opportunity for his team.  

     

It also helps that he’s got Sadio Mané to call upon, and the elusive Liverpool striker is far and away Senegal’s biggest star. Yet he’s got plenty of help, and the strength of Senegal’s squad is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that their entire midfield plies its trade in English football. Add in powerful Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, Bundesliga-based stopper Salif Sané, the mercurial Keita Balde and experienced striker Moussa Sow, and this is hardly a team to be taken lightly.

What may count against Senegal is sheer weight of expectation. While some Senegalese journalists have claimed the mood around the squad is “cautiously optimistic,” there’s little doubt Sadio Mané is a bona fide global star. But even more than Mané, coach Cissé seems to have had a galvanising effect on the squad. Fresh from missing qualification for three tournaments in a row, the dreadlock former midfield enforcer personifies cool on the touchline. Whether his calming influence is enough to inspire Senegal to victory in the white-hot confines of World Cup football remains to be seen.

Coach: Aliou Cissé

Key player: Sadio Mané (pictured)

One to watch: Keita Balde    

Colombia

After 16 long years in the wilderness, Colombia finally made their return to the World Cup finals in 2014. They reached the quarter-finals then, but can they repeat the feat in Russia?

Colombia’s stellar run four years ago owed much to the industry of playmaker James Rodríguez. He scored in all five of Colombia’s games and finished with the Golden Boot. And crucially for Colombian fans, he’s back to his best at Bayern Munich, where he’s spent the past two seasons on loan. Rodríguez proved pivotal in South American qualifying, rifling home six goals – including a vital late winner against Bolivia and the crucial opening goal against Peru on the final night that saw Colombia finish above the Peruvians to qualify directly for Russia by a solitary point.

Rodríguez is far from the only major name in a squad peppered with big-match experience. Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, Milan defender Cristián Zapata, Juventus flyer Juan Cuadrado and free-scoring skipper Radamel Falcao will all play their part, and in Yerry Mina, Davinson Sánchez and Jefferson Lerma there’s enough young talent to suggest the well is in no danger of running dry any time soon.

Colombia’s coach José Pékerman is likewise a grizzled veteran of the international arena, and the Argentine-born tactician was in charge for La Tricolor’s run to the quarter-finals last time around. What Pékerman may need to manage is the weight of expectation – no easy feat considering his team is laden with big stars and their accompanying egos.

The Colombians may relish the fact their opening game is against a Japan side labouring under the weight of its own expectations. Four years ago Colombia thumped Greece 3-0 in their tournament opener, and the crushing win helped set them on their way to a successful tournament. Much will depend on Rodríguez’s form in Russia, but even the likes of Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel suggest Colombia have plenty to fall back on should the man known univerally as ‘James’ fail to fire.

Can Colombia reprise their outstanding displays of four years ago? They’ll fancy their chances in a group that looks like it’s up for grabs.

Coach: José Pékerman

Key player: James Rodríguez

One to watch: Radamel Falcao    

Japan

A nation generally renowned for its steady consistency, Japan bucked the trend by dismissing their coach just two months out from the tournament.

Does Keisuke Honda hold too much sway over the Samurai Blue? That’s probably the question that needs to be asked after Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić was sacked in May, despite comfortably leading Japan to the World Cup finals. Halilhodžić had earned Honda’s ire by failing to show due deference to the 31-year-old midfielder and fellow veterans Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, and with significant ructions behind the scenes, the Japan Football Association pulled the trigger and installed the highly experienced Akira Nishino as coach barely two months out from the tournament.

Nishino, according to the JFA, was brought in because of “communication issues” – but for many Japan watchers his appointment comes around a decade too late. Not surprisingly, he’s been quick to reintegrate Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki back into his starting eleven – despite the fact he’s arguably got superior younger players at his disposal. Yet for all their undoubted talent, there’s no denying the fact that players like Gaku Shibasaki, Takashi Usami and Yoshinori Mutō have struggled with the transition to European club football. Instead, Japan are likely to rely heavily on old hands Eiji Kawashima, Yūto Nagatomo and skipper Makoto Hasebe in Russia, along with the aforementioned Honda.

They qualified for the finals comfortably enough – sealing progression with a superb 2-0 win over Australia in Saitama thanks to a tactical masterclass from the prickly Halilhodžić. But having so spectacularly dismissed their coach, and with an undercurrent of discontent among the squad, expectations are relatively low back home.

Which may, ironically, be the best thing for Japan. On their day, they’ve got the talent to beat anyone – but too often Japan’s biggest battles have been mental ones. Honda, at the very least, is a born winner and his sheer force of personality may just be enough to drive his side to success in Russia.

Will it be enough to get out of the group? The JFA certainly hope so. Because if they don’t, then questions must surely be asked of their handling of Japan’s entire World Cup campaign.

Coach: Akira Nishino

Key player: Keisuke Honda

One to watch: Takashi Inui      


Categories: Analysis | World Cup

2018 world cup, #russia2018, group h, poland, senegal, colombia, japan

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