World Cup Group H Preview: Colombia Slight Favourites in a Wildcard Group H

The final group of the 2018 World Cup features perhaps the most intriguing of all, given the similar abilities of each team. Colombia, the highest seeded side of this group, look to live up to the expectations that were set by their heroics in Brazil four years ago. However, the feeling of uncertainty must reside uncomfortably in the Colombian camp, as the verve and freedom of that side has been bogged down somewhat, and the fact that their group contains no ‘easy’ victories.

They compete with Japan, Poland, and Senegal, who all harbour hopes of progression in this year’s World Cup. Intriguingly, all four teams enact the same initial 4-2-3-1 formation, albeit with significant emphasis in different parts of the field.

Colombia will be chomping at the bit to get this World Cup started, having watched the fall and rise of star James Rodriguez at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and knowing that another quarter-final appearance is not outside the realms of possibility. Rodriguez will play in the attacking midfield role of this side, slightly further forward than with his Bavarian club, and will look to score goals and feed his strikers opportunities. Whether that striker is Monaco’s Radamel Falcao or Villareal’s Carlos Bacca (on loan from AC Milan) remains to be seen, but Falcao’s injury history suggests he may not last up front without help.

In midfield, their holding midfielders will be expected to act as both defensive helpers and base players for attack, freeing up wingers such as Juan Cuadrado and Juan Fernando Quintero to create havoc out wide. Defensively, keeper David Ospina will look to rediscover the form he has not been given a chance to find during his stint at Arsenal. Tottenham centre-back, Davinson Sanchez and right back, Santiago Arias of PSV will take the lead in protecting Ospina.

Despite being handed the tag of dark horse by many an expert, Colombia are favoured to progress from this group. However, the confidence of Brazil 2014 is not replicated this time around, as their opponents can upset them if they do not perform to their own heightened expectations.

Colombia begins their campaign in earnest against Japan, a mainstay in World Cups in recent years. Considered the weakest of the four sides in this group, the Japanese are still nimble and have the players to play the ball at their feet in midfield. The issues for this side lie away from the middle third, as they have question marks up front. Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City is the main forward threat but operates better with a support striker, which is in opposition to Japan’s primary setup. Defensively, they are stoutly positioned and may be difficult to break down as their midfield pairing works in tandem with the defence to stop attacks, rather than push on into attack. Maya Yoshida of Southampton will be the glue to hold the back four together.

More limited in attack than some previous Japanese World Cup teams, Japan will depend on the solidity of the holding midfielders – especially Makoto Hasebe – to stop defensive leaks, and leave the forward play to key man Keisuke Honda, with Shinji Kagawa a possible outlet should they be required to become more creative. Overall, a decent side in this group but perhaps most likely to finish bottom of the group.

A major contender in this group will be Poland, who are led by Robert Lewandowski, a genuine world-class goal scorer for Bayern Munich and a prolific striker internationally with 16 goals in qualifying. He will be burdened with the main attacking responsibilities for an otherwise unspectacular side. Of this group’s sides, Poland are the most likely to move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation, as they have experimented a 3-4-3 style with Lukasz Pisczcek moving away from his traditional right-back position to add more pace at centre back. Wojciech Szczesny has experience at the top level in football, but this is a leaky defence that conceded more goals than any other group winner in European qualification.

The supply for Lewandowski may come from some of Poland’s more experienced players, as Jakub Blaszczykowski and Grzegorz Krychowiak look to feed the ball into the phenom. However, the burden of scoring will ultimately stem from Lewandowski, which may be Poland’s undoing. Should he fail to fire or be well contained, Poland may find it difficult to find other scoring options. Lewandowski will likely be the difference between a knockout appearance and an early exit. They are as likely to score goals as they are to concede, so one could expect high scoring affairs where they are involved.

Finally, there is the vastly underrated Senegal. The African side are in their first World Cup since 2002 when they not only shocked world champions at the time, France, but reached the quarter-final before being undone by Turkey. This time around, they boast an exceptional talent in attack in Sadio Mané who can unlock a defence with a piece of brilliance. Overshadowed by Mohammed Salah for Liverpool this season, Mané still played a large part in bringing Liverpool to the Champions League final. His presence alone will unsettle opponents, opening the opportunities for teammates such as Diafra Sakho, Moussa Sow, and Cheikhou Kouyaté to excel and make a difference.

A squad with a lot of attacking talent, Senegal may end up as one of the best teams to watch, despite locals disliking manager Aliou Cissé’s more conservative tactics. Their back four is led by Kalidou Koulibaly, a defensive powerhouse plying his trade in Italy with Napoli. His presence will serve as a calming presence in a defence that may be otherwise erratic. Should things click, Senegal may be a team that neutrals can get behind. With other African sides Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia facing difficult routes out of the group stages, Senegal may be Africa’s best hope for a deep run in the tournament

This group features three standouts in Rodriguez, Lewandowski, and Mané, but ultimately the best team will prevail. Every game will be important as long as each team has a chance to advance, but the most intriguing game will be on June 24th, when Colombia clash with Poland. However, the crucial match may be the final group game between Colombia and Senegal on the 28th of June. A fascinating group, to say the least, any one performance could be the key to this group.