We continue our 2018 World Cup previews with Group H, which is headlined by Colombia and Poland. Bayern Munich teammates Robert Lewandowski and James Rodriguez could provide fireworks in this group, making it really fun despite not containing any world powers. Senegal won’t go quietly, and Japan will look to steal points with defense. It should be a fascinating group to watch.
Other Group Previews:
Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F, Group G
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Robert Lewandowski is one of the world’s most dangerous strikers, and he’s the reason Poland is favored to advance out of Group H. In 93 career national team matches, Lewandowski has potted 52 goals. That includes the 16 goals he scored during 2018 World Cup qualifying, which led all players.
The Polish Footballer of the Year in seven straight campaigns, Lewandowski is a prolific goal-scorer for Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich. In 195 total appearances for his club, the 29-year-old has scored an insane 151 goals. He’s been on the Bundesliga Team of the Year in three straight seasons, was the Bundesliga Player of the Year for the 2016-17 season and led the league in goals in 2017-18 with 29.
Lewandowski is the greatest Polish footballer of all-time. He is always the man to watch when he dons his national team’s colors.
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
Lewandowski’s Bayern Munich teammate is the man to watch for Colombia, especially after the incredible run he had at the 2014 World Cup. James Rodriguez bagged a tournament-best six goals en route to winning the Golden Boot. At just 22, he added two assists and was the driving force behind Colombia’s run to the quarterfinals.
Four years later much has changed. Rodriguez spent three years at Real Madrid before getting loaned to Bayern before this season. He didn’t have the kind of impact Real was expecting when the club paid $108 million for him after that magical cup run. His time on the field actually diminished the longer he was in Madrid, which led to a transfer request. Bayern swooped in and took him on loan. He had seven goals and 11 assists in 23 Bundesliga appearances this season.
Now a hardened 26-year-old Rodriguez has the chance to revive the incredible buzz he garnered four years ago in Brazil. He hasn’t been “bad” since that World Cup run, but he’s not the game-changer many believed he would become. A great run in Russia could change that perception.
Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the best-kept secrets in all of soccer. The 26-year-old Napoli center back has quietly become one of the elite defenders in the sport. A big (6’5″), lean monster at the back, Koulibaly is finally getting the recognition he’s deserved for a few years.
Koulibaly has been named to the Serie A Team of the Year in back-to-back seasons and is sure to be rewarded again this year. He was a big part in Napoli keeper Pepe Reina securing a Serie A best 23 clean sheets during the 2017-18 campaign.
Koulibaly is magnificent in the air, has next-level defensive instincts and plays a very strong game at the back. A native of France, he played with the French U20 team before opting to play for Senegal at the national level. He’s the key to the entire team and the rock on which it is built.
World Cup Finals Appearances: 5
Best Finish: Quarterfinals in 2014
FIFA World Rank: 16
Colombia was the flashy, fun team you rooted for in 2014 because of how exciting their matches were. This time around things will be very different. After barely qualifying on the final matchday, the Colombians are favored to win Group H, but have far more pressure on them than the last time they reached the World Cup.
Los Cafeteros will rely heavily on James Rodriguez as their playmaker, but have plenty of firepower to surround him with. The issue is, that offensive oomph didn’t come through in qualifying, when they scored just 21 goals in 18 matches. Forward and captain Radamel Falcao will have to come up big in the final third for this team to be successful.
At the back, 21-year-old Davinson Sanchez already looks like a Premier League stalwart for Tottenham Hotspur, AC Milan’s Cristian Zapata is solid, and PSV’s Santiago Arias should be called upon as well. Arsenal’s David Ospina will almost certainly be the team’s keeper, which gives the Colombians a solid group at the back.
Colombia will look to defend and counter-attack with speed. The same formula that led to stunning success in 2014.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 7
Best Finishes: Third place in 1974 and 1982
FIFA World Rank: 10
Other than Lewandowski, the Polish team is devoid of stars. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad squad. A run to the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 — where they lost on penalty kicks to eventual champion Portugal — should keep anyone from doubting the Poles.
Other than Lewandowski, Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski is the player to watch. The 24-year-old is coming off a fantastic Serie A season during which he scored seven goals in 47 matches and was a central point of the team’s midfield.
During qualifying, Poland averaged nearly three goals per match and easily won its group over Denmark, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Montenegro and Romania. That said, the Poles also conceded 14 goals during qualifying, which is a ton. Juventus keeper Wojciech Szczesny will need to be at the top of his game if Poland is to make a deep run in this year’s tournament.
PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 1
Best Finish: Quarterfinals in 2002
FIFA World Rank: 28
Senegal is back in the World Cup after a 16-year absence thanks to a dominant qualification campaign. The Lions of Teranga didn’t lose a match in qualifying and outscored opponents 15-5 in their eight matches. They also had eight different players score goals in those matches, showing that they truly play as a team.
As mentioned above, Kalidou Koulibaly is the best player the country has to offer, but don’t expect this group to be a pushover. This is a ridiculously talented, athletic roster and I expect some goals. Liverpool forward Sadio Mane could provide some fireworks, while Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate should provide solid, steady leadership in midfield. A trio of young attackers could make some noise as well, as Keita Balde, M’Baye Niang and Ismaila Sarr all have the potential for a breakthrough.
Senegal absolutely has a path out of group play. Neither Poland, nor Colombia is assured of a place in the Round of 16. Expect the Senegalese to fight hard to earn a top two finish in the group in an attempt to play spoiler.
Previous World Cup Finals Appearances: 5
Best Finishes: Round of 16 in 2002 and 2010
FIFA World Rank: 60
Japan won its qualifying group by one point, advancing to the World Cup over Saudi Arabia and Australia, who both wound up in the tournament as well. While this squad isn’t as good as some others the Japanese have sent to previous tournaments, there is still some ability there.
The center of it all will be Keisuke Honda. The 31-year-old is up to 94 caps and 36 national team goals. Now at Pachuca, he’s also had runs at CSKA Moscow and AC Milan. Both Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki are both still big parts of the squad. Okazaki is 32, so this is likely his last run at a World Cup, but 112 matches and 50 national team goals will get the Leicester City forward on the pitch. Kagawa is somehow still just 29, but has 90 caps and 29 international goals on his resume.
This team will defend and attempt to counter-attack. Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki will be left to create something offensively, while the rest of the roster attempts to keep balls out of the net. This doesn’t look like the kind of squad that can get out of group play.
June 19: Poland vs. Senegal (Moscow), 8 a.m. ET/5 a.m. PT
June 19: Colombia vs. Japan (Saransk), 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT
June 24: Japan vs. Senegal (Yekaterinburg), 11 a.m. ET/8 a.m. PT
June 24: Poland vs. Colombia (Kazan), 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
June 28: Japan vs. Poland (Volgograd), 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT
June 28: Senegal vs. Colombia (Samara), 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT
ALL ODDS TO WIN GROUP VIA ODDSCHECKER (PERCENTAGE CHANCE TO ADVANCE IN PARENTHESES)
COLOMBIA 7/4 (67%)
POLAND 2/1 (64%)
SENEGAL 5/1 (39%)
JAPAN 38/5 (30%)