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There is no clear favorite in Group H, which might not be the fiercest of this World Cup’s first-stage quartets but could be the most competitive. Poland, following a strong qualifying run and featuring one of the world’s best forwards in Robert Lewandowski, is the most fancied side here but will need to be at its best to reach the knockout phase.
Senegal and Colombia are looking to oust the Poles, who are ranked 10th by FIFA although nobody in their right mind actually thinks they’re among the 10 best sides in this tournament. Senegal has extraordinary talent, athleticism and confidence, and the memory of its terrific 2002 performance provides strong motivation. Colombia has an in-form James Rodriguez and the sharpest coach in the group — and among the most cunning in the Cup — and expects to make the most of both.
The odd team out appears to be Japan, which still is reeling after Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s dismissal last month. That’s two teams that have fired him after he steered them into the World Cup; Ivory Coast eight years ago was the first.
WATCH: Are Poland’s chances to win the World Cup slim?
Poland was the oddest selection to lead a group in this tournament — how does Spain not get a top seed? — but Adam Nawalka has led a monumental rebuild to get the Orly back to the World Cup after a 12-year absence, and this is reward for that. And for a dominant run through qualifying. There’s a lot of quality here, and if the Poles aren’t a shoo-in for the Round of 16, they’re capable of getting to the quarterfinals, and then who knows.
Nawalka, who was part of Poland’s fifth-place side in 1978, has added continuity, stability and a progressive sense of the game, and in Lewandowski, he’s got a true superstar who could carry the team further than it deserves to go. The striker, already at 29 Poland’s all-time goals leader with 52, scored a European-record 16 in qualifying and has topped 40 for Bayern Munich each of the past three seasons. Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski, the best of a good young generation finding its way into the team, offers creativity in midfield.
Things are more iffy at the back, especially with veteran defender Kamil Glik from Monaco likely out for the tournament with a shoulder injury, leaving Borussia Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszcek as the only experienced defender. Grzegorz Krychowiak offers cover in midfield, and how well his partnership with Zielinski fares will have much to say about what the Poles achieve. Just not as much as Lewandowski’s form. The hope at home is that this is the start of something comparable to what the Orly produced three and four decades ago, when they finished third in Argentina and again eight years later in Spain.
Senegal is back in the World Cup for the first time since its magnificent debut in 2002, when the freewheeling Lions of Teranga stunned defending champion France in the opener en route to the quarterfinals. The captain of that side, Aliou Cisse, is in charge now, at 42 the youngest coach in the field. He’s got a terrifically athletic and skillful bunch, especially in the attack, and if everything comes together, it can win this group and get to the final eight. It’s no certainty.
The greatest concern is Cisse’s tactical acumen. Sadio Mané, the most important player in Liverpool’s success the past two years (although overshadowed this season by Egypt’s Mohamed Salah), heads what could be a thrilling attack, with Monaco’s Keita Baldé and Torino’s (on loan from AC Milan) M’Baye Niang, both 23, and Rennes’ 20-year-old phenom Ismaïla Sarr providing support. It’s not clicked as well as it should yet, although Cisse, who primarily used a 4-4-2 in qualifying, is likely to go with a 4-3-3 alignment to get three of them on the field.
All but one player on the 23-man roster Cisse has chosen for Russia toil in Europe, and there’s star quality on every line. Everton’s Indrissa Gueye is vital as the holding man in an all-English Premier League midfield, and the backline is led by Napoli’s 6-foot-5 Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the world’s finest central defenders. If Anderlecht left back Kara Mbodji can make a full return from a longstanding knee injury, all the better, but there is depth and talent in reserve.
Four years ago, Rodriguez, then 22, won the Golden Boot with six goals — including a stunning volley against Uruguay — as COLOMBIA, making a World Cup return after a 16-year-absence, roared into the quarterfinals only to fall in a tight game to host Brazil. Jose Pekerman is back to lead Los Cafeteros again, and that’s a huge plus. He’s a revered coach with a long list of successes, including three U-20 World Cup titles and the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals with his native Argentina and three South American coach-of-the-year honors.
He’s got a talented bunch playing for big clubs, except a lot of them are watching from the bench, and that’s a concern. Rodriguez, whose 2014 exploits were rewarded with a Real Madrid contract, has seen far more time — and looked so much better — since a loan deal to Bayern Munich, and he’s the fulcrum around which the attack operated. In front of him in a one-striker formation — Pekerman has used a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 and 4-4-1-1 — is 32-year-old Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, who missed 2014 with a knee injury. There’s not much depth behind him.
The defense has been rebuilt following the retirement of Mario Alberto Yepes, and there’s youngsters Davinson Sanchez of Tottenham and Yerry Mina of Barcelona have assumed great responsibility. Goalkeeper David Ospina returns, and we’ll see how sharp he is. He gets cup games, not league action, for Arsenal. Colombia tends to beat inferior foes and lose to its superiors, and that should make for an interesting Group H campaign.
Japan arrives in Russia in poor shape, after Halilhodzic’s dismissal brought on by horrid preparatory results and questionable tactics and team selection, and although the Samurai Blue have extensive experience — five players in their third World Cups — and talent in key places, there’s only so much new coach Akira Nishino can do in two months. The Japanese, making their sixth straight World Cup appearance, have been in decline most of the past decade, so not much was expected anyway, but in this group, with three superior foes, it could get ugly.
Halilhodzic had changed the pulse of the Japanese game, moving away from its traditional possess-and-pass style — which fit the players’ exceptional technical skill and speed of play — to a counterattacking game while jettisoning three of the biggest attacking stars: Pachuca’s Keisuke Honda, the biggest name for the Samurai Blue, Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki, and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa. All three are back in the mix, and the presence of 34-year-old midfield general Mateo Hasebe, who has spent a decade in the Bundesliga, and backline leader Maya Yoshida, who plays for Southampton, are definite pluses. And Olympique Marseille’s Hiroki Sakai is among the best Asian right backs.If Nishino can repair trust issue and boost decaying morale, a third trek to the Round of 16, following in the steps of the the 2002 and 2010 teams, is possible. It’s a long shot.