Monday, 11 June 2018

World Cup Preview - Group H

Group H

Poland (10)
Senegal (28)
Colombia (16)
Japan (60)

Poland - Going to their first World Cup since 2006, Poland will be glad they have been drawn in a group that gives them a strong chance of qualifying for the Last 16 for the first time since the 80's. In a group with Denmark, Romania and Montenegro, they qualified with ease, losing only one game away in Montenegro.

The squad has a good blend of youth and experience, but the bulk of the starting 11 is made of up experienced players who have played in the big leagues in Europe.

Lukas Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski played together on the right hand side for Dortmund for many years and have a good understanding there. At 33 and 32 respectively they are likely going to their last tournaments. They used to have serious pace and cause trouble with that, but they are good footballers and can still be creative influences.

Two midfielders that are exciting members of the squad are Arkadiusz Milik and Piotr Zielinski. Both have been at Napoli for the last two seasons, with Milik being unlucky with knee injuries. He has had operations on both knees for separate injuries and it will be interesting to see how fit he is in Russia. Two years ago he was looking like a top prospect playing with Ajax. He has a beautiful left foot and great feet, but is also a threat in the air. Hopefully the injuries haven't slowed him down.

Zielinski is smaller, quicker and a skillful player. He likes running with the ball and is more of a creater of chances.

At central defense, Monaco defender Kamil Glik is strong and aggressive and a crucial part of the team. He has picked up an injury to his shoulder in training, doing an overhead kick, so if he is missing that will be a huge lose to Poland. Behind him, if fit, will be one of two former Arsenal keepers, Szczesny or Fabianski. Fabianski has been a regular this year at Swansea and that game time could well be the deciding factor over who is number one this tournament.

Poland finished third in 1974 and 1982, but they will be surprising everyone if they make it that far again. They have a great chance to progress from the group where they will face Belgium or England most likely. They are a strong team with some exciting players, they won't be easy to beat.

Star Man - 16 goals in qualification for Robert Lewandowski was 13 more than anyone else in the team. He has been one of the best goalscorers in world football for seven seasons now in the Bundesliga, and with 52 goals is the record scorer for his country. This will be his first World Cup and a chance to do it on the biggest stage of all. He is possibly looking for a move this summer, and a Golden Boot performance from him would drive up his price.

Senegal - The Lions of Teranga are going to the World Cup for the first time since they shocked France in 2002. Their only tournament to date resulted in a Quarter Finals place, something that will be hard to replicate here. They were given an easy group in qualification to help them through, with an unbeaten six games against Burkino Faso, South Africa and Cape Verde Islands.

The team relies on a strong base, with 3 defensive minded midfielders, allowing the three upfront to try and create chances. They only scored 10 goals in the six qualifying games, with top scorers Diafra Sakho and Cheikh N'Doye getting two each. Sakho was at West Ham for four seasons, but never looked like a regular goalscorer. His best season was 12 goals in the first year he arrived. He moved to Rennes in January and only managed four games, scoring three goals. He is likely to be used from the bench for Senegal.

The likely front three of Keita Balde, Sadio Mane and M'Baye Niang is very exciting for Senegal. They are all extremely quick, and are all interchangeable in a front three. They will be hard to deal with on a counter attack. Balde in particular has impressed since his move to Monaco last Summer, and with himself and Niang both only being 23 years old, the future could be bright for Senegal.
Sadio Mane has had another great season with Liverpool, especially in their Champions League run. He sometimes looks a little out of control, but his pace and directness are a real threat.

The choice of five midfielders all playing in England shows the team has a lot of quality. However the midfield is mostly strong against the ball and lack quality on it. They won't be readily joining the attack, and they are not generally considered a goal threat in open play. Set pieces however could be a big weapon for Senegal. With at least five players in the starting team over 6ft4in, they could be tough to deal with if delivery from corners and free kicks is good enough.

Star Man - Kalidou Koulibaly has been a rock at the heart of the Napoli defense this season as they tried to wrestle the Serie A stranglehold that Juventus have away from them. His stoppage time winner from a corner in Turin looked like the catalyst for it to happen, but they ultimately fell short. The French born 26 year old stands at 6ft5, is quick and strong, but also can read the game.

Nicknamed 'The Wall' by fans, he can also come out with the ball and pick a pass. He could be a big money mover this summer, and he has a chance to show off his qualities on the world stage.

Colombia - Four years ago in Brazil, Colombia were the team everybody enjoyed watching. They played attacking football and James Rodriguez emerged as one of the best players in the world. A controversial quarter final defeat by Brazil didn't stop the fans welcoming them home as heroes. Four years on and they arrive on the back of a qualifying campaign in which they struggled to score goals, and only just qualified in fourth place, on the last game day. The South American qualifiers are difficult, but it was the lack of firepower that really worries Colombia.

In January 2014, an ACL tear to star striker Radamel Falcao was a bitter blow to the squad. He wouldn't be back in time for the World Cup, and now it is great to see him back scoring goals and getting his opportunity to come to his first tournament. He didn't look fit at Manchester United or Chelsea, but since his return to Monaco he has almost looked back to his best. His 24 goals this season have helped Monaco to second place in Ligue 1, and I hope he can go on to have a big World Cup.
Two defenders that have come on to the international scene recently are Yerry Mina, who plays at Barcelona, and Davinson Sanchez at Spurs. Both are tall and quick, but definitely have mistakes in them. It will be interesting to see how they fair if Colombia are playing against stronger opposition.

Winger Juan Cuadrado is another player who didn't quite break in to the Chelsea team, but has been an excellent signing for Juventus. His pace running with the ball is a real threat, and he will be hoping to replicate his form of four years ago when he was the top of the assist charts at the tournament.
The squad has a nice blend of youth and experience, and they will be looking for inspiration from their star players to qualify from what is a tough group.

Star Man - Top scorer in Brazil 2014, and in qualifying for this tournament, James Rodriguez is the countries key player. He wasn't a regular at Real Madrid, but has been looking back to his best at Bayern Munich. He plays the role he loves for Colombia, behind the striker and with a free role, which gives him the chance to show his skills and eye for goal. He regularly scores important goals for his country, with five out of six of his goals in qualifying being the first goal of the game, and the other being an equaliser, against Chile. He could be set for another big tournament.

Japan - Normally regarded as the strongest team in Asia, Japan are definitely not expected to be such a threat this year. They just edged out Australia and Saudi Arabia by one point in the qualifiers, but arrive in Russia on the back of friendly defeats against Ukraine, Ghana and Switzerland. The Bosnian manager, Vahid Halihodzic led The Samurai to the tournament, but he was recently sacked, and the role given to Akira Nishino.

The Japanese Football Association technical director was given the job after Halihodzic was criticised for his direct and aggressive style of play. Now with a more attractive looking 3-4-3 in operation, they will try to return to the short passing and high pressing that made the team a danger in previous tournaments.

It will be difficult to change things in such short notice, but with the return to the squad of experienced players, Kagawa, Honda and Okazaki, the team looks stronger than it did 12 months ago.
The Bundesliga is where six of the current squad play, and they will be an important part of the managers plans. Hamburg have just been relegated, but captain and right wing back Goteku Sakai is a crucial player for his country. His energy on the right hand side is a good outlet, and he also helps out when required to defend.

Strikers Yoshinori Muto(Mainz) and Yuya Osako(just signed for Werder Bremen) will share central striker responsibilities. Muto has had a better season with Mainz, scoring ten goals, but Osako has been more prolific when playing for his country.
In qualifying, it was Genki Haraguchi that top scored. The winger played a key role in helping Fortuna Dusseldorf achieve promotion to the Bundesliga this season after going on loan there in January.

Japan are outsiders for the group, but with a new manager and some optimism back in the team, they could cause a surprise.

Star Man - Southampton defender Maya Yoshida was a regular in the Premier League again this season and he is the most important defender for Japan. He reads the game well and is aggressive, also providing a goal threat for his country with ten goals. He now has 80 caps for his country, and the 29 year old is hoping to be part of a back three that can keep clean sheets in Russia, against quality attacking opposition. He is likely to be busy and will have to lead the defense well for Japan to qualify.

Predictions - Group H is probably the hardest to predict given their is no clear favourite and no rank outsider. Colombia did so well four years ago, and they have James Rodriguez and Falcao to link up. They play Japan in game one, and a win would put them on their way to qualifying. I think they will top the group eventually, and be joined by Poland. The injury to Glik for Poland will be an issue, but with Milik, Zielinski and Lewandowski they are such a threat in attack, and I think they will be just too good for Senegal over the three games, maybe on goal difference.
Japan will finish 4th, I think, but Senegal could easily sneak in to the top two.

What to Bet on - Poland scored 28 goals in qualifying, dominating a tough group. I think they will beat Japan in the final game to qualify. They are 5/6 to beat Japan in that game.

World Klutz - It wouldn't be World Klutz without the most famous of them all in 2006. The last game of an illustrious career, the final of the World Cup, what a way to end it all on the biggest stage.
France went on to lose the shootout and Zidane retired in disgrace. I'll forever remember him for his goal at Hampden when I stood behind it on the track as a 15 year old. But this moment possibly cost his team, as they saw Italy lift the trophy.

People too young to remember 2002 will forever remember this as his most famous moment.

He went on to management and is doing not bad.


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