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World Cup 2018: Group Preview — Group H

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Philly Football Daily will be covering the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia in its entirety, this summer. In the lead-up to kickoff in Moscow, PFD will be releasing previews of all eight groups.

 

From Poland’s road to glory, to the underdogs of Japan and Senegal fighting for a spot in the Knockout Rounds, Group H is not a group that warrants being written off. And, if you do write this group off, I promise you will miss a whole lot.

Poland: Now is the Time, Right?

Much has been made of the so-called “Golden Generation” of one of Europe’s best international sides, Belgium. However, another European side should be receiving similar praise, and that side is Poland.

Poland have recently risen to sixth in the FIFA Rankings, and the Polish National Team is being tipped by some as a potential top-four candidate to win the World Cup this Summer, in Russia.

Much of Poland’s meteoric rise has been made possible by the emergence of young stars such as Piotr Zieliński, who was a key part in Napoli’s title challenge in Serie A this past campaign. Kamil Glik is another budding star, who has proven himself to be a rock in the back for both club AS Monaco and country.

Then, of course, there is Robert Lewandowski.

Lewandowski has posted hundreds of goals for German super-clubs Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, and he recently bagged the Bundesliga Golden Boot award for this past season.

Poland’s hitman is both deadly and clinical, and Lewandowski will surely play a big part in his team’s quest for World Cup glory.

There are a few worries for this Polish team, however.

First, there is little depth at the forward position. Lewandowski is a game changer, yes, but what happens when Poland’s target man leaves the game? Obviously, there are questions as to who could replace Lewandowski if need be.

Aduriz Milik seems a sure bet, but the young forward has struggled with injury this year. Finding a secondary striker is needed, because this Polish team simply is not the same when Lewandowski is a non-factor.

Japan: Rough Road Ahead For Tournament Regulars

Japan has become a regular participant in the World Cup, in recent years. However, that is due, in large part, to a relatively weak showing from the other nations in their qualifying region. Japan could find life a bit more difficult this time out.

Many have deemed this Japan side the worst in years, with fans and pundits alike giving the Japanese almost no chance at escaping the group.

That being said, Japan certainly has the talent necessary to make it out of Group H.

Japan is great defensively on their day, and players like Southampton defender Maya Yoshida are capable of logging solid shifts in the back. It must also be noted that Japan will be boosted by one of the most passionate fan bases in all of international football, and the Japanese will need all of that support to have a shot this Summer.

Fans of the English Premier League will recognize two of Japan’s most notable stars, as current Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki and former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa are likely to feature heavily for their team. Both players are capable of being game-changers on their day, so it will be interesting to see if Japan can manage to sneak into the Knockout Rounds.

Columbia: High Hopes, and a Squad to Match

A lot is riding on coach Jose Pekerman’s shoulders ahead of this World Cup.

After a brilliant showing in the 2014 World Cup, in which Columbia asserted itself on the international football map, many fans are hoping that Colombia can make the next leap and contend with their South American rivals Brazil and Argentina.

It will surely be tough to match these expectations, but with a revitalized James Rodriguez in midfield, surely anything is possible. James is the talisman for this Columbian team, as he contributed 22 goals this past season with Munich.

James has looked unstoppable in 2018, and it will be a tough ask for teams to defend him this Summer.

Defensively, Colombia is sound, and budding star Davison Sanchez will be out to prove why Tottenham Hotspur shelled out money for him, in last Summer’s transfer window. In goal, his North London rival David Ospina could be searching for a career reboot after a rather mediocre spell at Arsenal.

That said, the major problem for this Colombian side will be scoring goals.

Columbia has scored just 21 goals in 18 qualifying games, and though they have plenty of pace on the counter attack, from the likes of Juventus forward Juan Cuadrado and Brighton & Hove Albion player Jose Izquierdo, the Columbians will rely heavily on whomever their main striker features to be.

Senegal: Stars Outshine Lack of Experience

If there is anything certain about this Senegal team, it is that the Africans will be flashy.

Boasting stars such as Liverpool midfielder Sadio Mane, AC Milan forward M’baye Niang, and touted SS Lazio forward Keita Balde Diao, this Senegalese side will be exciting to watch.

Escaping Group H won’t be easy, but Senegal certainly have the talent in their ranks to give it a bid.

Holding this Senegal team back could be their lack of major tournament experience.

While Senegal features several players who compete at the highest levels of club football, this is only the African side’s second-ever World Cup appearance. It will be important for the most experienced players of this considerably young team to step up.

Premier League stars Cheikhou Kouyate and Idrissa Gana Gueye will be tasked with holding down the middle of the pitch, and could be deciding factors in each of their Group Stage games. Their leadership will be key, given the vast inexperience in Senegal’s midfield.

Central defender Kalidou Koulibaly has garnered interest from top clubs around Europe, and could use this as an opportunity to force a move away from Napoli this Summer. Koulibaly is highly-rated, and is likely to feature heavily in what looks to be a tested defense this Summer. 

Players to Watch: James Rodriguez and Sadio Mane

Robert Lewandowski will certainly be the man to watch, but so will Sadio Mane and James Rodriguez, who are arguably two of the most creative and clever players of the entire group.

James will be tasked with leading a Colombian side through producing more moments of brilliance. And, if he can produce another Golden Boot performance this time out, the Columbians will be doing plenty of dancing.

Not to mention, if James manages to score another “worldie” like his volley at last World Cup, he will certainly be a player to watch.

Liverpool fans know how Mane can change the entire complexion of a game with brilliant pieces of skill and imagination. Whether he takes up a central role or a wing role with Senegal remains to be seen. Nevertheless, his blistering pace will surely be utilized.

Keep an eye on Mane, if you can.

X-Factors: Radamel Falcao and Keisuke Honda

In a Colombian side that has struggled to score, it will be crucial for main striker Radamel Falcao to make his mark come tournament time.

Falcao was once one of the hottest strikers in world football, but has since cooled off after disappointing spells at English Premier League sides Chelsea and Manchester United.

Falcao found some solace in France playing for Monaco and since then his form has improved. But Falcao will need to have his shooting boots laced up if Columbia are to go far in this tournament.

For Keisuke Honda, this is a chance for him to prove why Europe’s elite clubs once fought over him.

Honda was also once a touted youngster, but failed to find any real success. Now 31, Honda has been successful in Mexico for club side Pachuca, and if he continues his good form, he could help see Japan out of the Group Stage.

Hot Take: Lewa Takes Home Golden Boot

I think Poland is a great side this year, and Lewandowski has the potential to spur his team to a semi-final. This Poland side can score goals, and in a group with some shaky defenses, I think Lewa bags at least six this summer and takes home top-scorer.

Predictions: No Surprises Here

First, Poland will win this group convincingly, and will not drop a point.

It will be a battle for second place between Colombia and Senegal, and while Senegal should put up a fight, I think Colombia just squeezes by on the final day of matches. That means Poland and Colombia will move on to the Knockout Round, as I cannot see Japan doing much of anything this year.

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