Poland optimistic after strong qualifier form
This is the eighth World Cup for Poland and the first since 2006. They lost 6-5 after extra time against Brazil in their 1938 debut before twice finishing third, in 1974 and 1982. However, this century Poland failed to reach the knockout phase in 2002 and 2006, finishing fourth and third in their group respectively. Their last appearance in the last 16 was in 1986.
Coach: Adam Nawalka
Robert Lewandowski: Talismanic Bayern Munich striker with the biggest influence on Poland’s style of play and confidence, he was the leading scorer in Europe’s World Cup qualifying campaign. He was also top scorer in the Bundesliga this season for the third time since he began playing in Germany in 2010 — the first non-German to achieve the feat.
Kamil Glik: French media have dubbed the Monaco centre-back “the rock” which sums him up nicely. The 30-year-old has a reputation as a rugged defender with a flair for scoring stunning goals. Last year he won the Ligue 1 title and played in the Champions League semi-final.
Grzegorz Krychowiak: The 28-year-old defensive midfielder was a key player during Euro 2016. He closed down the space in front of the defence and broke up opposition attacks. However, after joining Paris Saint-Germain from Sevilla in June 2016, he struggled to establish himself given their attacking style of play.
After booking a place in Russia, Nawalka switched from a back four to a three-man defence for tactical flexibility. The transition was difficult, resulting in a goalless draw against Uruguay and 1-0 defeats by Mexico and Nigeria in friendlies — the worst run of results under Nawalka. The Poles claimed their first victory with the new formation by beating South Korea 3-2 in March thanks to Piotr Zielinski’s last-gasp winner.
Poland’s strong performance at Euro 2016 meant their fans looked to the 2018 World Cup with a sense of hope. Reaching the quarter-finals two years ago was the team’s best run at a major tournament for decades. Poland have been drawn against Senegal, Colombia and Japan in Russia. The first reaction in the country was quite optimistic but on further reflection Group H is considered one of the most unpredictable and even at the finals. Optimism has also been undermined by problems the players have faced at their clubs. The team are not as strong as at Euro 2016 but the main objective remains to reach the last 16 for the first time in 32 years.
Senegal make 2nd WC appearance
Senegal’s only prior appearance at the World Cup came in 2002 when they beat holders France in the opening game before going on to reach the quarter-finals. They became only the second African country to progress that far at the tournament.
Coach: Aliou Cisse
Sadio Mane: The jet-heeled forward will be crucial to Senegal’s World Cup hopes and will be his country’s talisman in attack. The Liverpool player began the season slowly in the Premier League but found a rich vein of form at the end of the campaign, forming a crucial part of the Merseyside club’s formidable attacking trio.
Kalidou Koulibaly: Senegal boast a man-mountain at the back, whose pace and strength make him a formidable obstacle for opposing forwards to negotiate. The defender has been a pillar of Napoli’s Serie A title challenge and even scored the winner as they beat Juventus when the top two played each other in April.
Cheikhou Kouyate: Senegal’s industrious captain gives them a physical presence in midfield and has become a fan favourite at his club, West Ham United, whom he joined from Anderlecht in 2014.
While he can also operate at the back, his all-action style in the middle of the pitch and imposing stature make him a natural leader at the heart of Senegal’s team.
Senegal’s last two World Cup warm-up matches both ended in draws — 1-1 with Uzbekistan and 0-0 with Bosnia. They are unbeaten in their last seven matches, however, and have conceded only twice in their last five.
Senegal will fancy their chances of making it into the knockout rounds having been drawn in Group H alongside Poland, Colombia and Japan. Should they make it to the second round, they will play the first or second-placed team from Group G, which features Belgium, England, Panama and Tunisia.
Colombia hope to build on 2014 show
Colombia are playing in their fifth World Cup, with their quarter-final appearance at Brazil 2014 — where they lost to the hosts — their best performance. The Andean country is best remembered for its 1990s team featuring characters such as eccentric goalkeeper Rene Higuita and blond-locked Carlos Valderrama.
Coach: Jose Pekerman
James Rodriguez: Fresh from clinching a sixth successive Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich, the 26-year-old Rodriguez will be hoping to keep up his winning streak in Russia. “Hamez,” as his adoring Colombian fans pronounce his first name, was top scorer at the 2014 World Cup and won over many in the public with his dazzling goals and dancing celebrations.
Radamel Falcao: Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, 32, missed out on the 2014 World Cup due to a ligament injury. But “El Tigre” (The Tiger) is planning to roar back in Russia and has confessed to daydreaming about the goals he wants to score for the canary-yellow team.
Juan Cuadrado: The Juventus winger is feared for his fierce counter-attacks and goals from near-impossible angles. Cuadrado, 29, was unable to play for Juve for three months due to a groin injury but when he returned against AC Milan in March, he scored barely 15 minutes in to set his side on the way to a 3-1 win.
Colombia had a disappointing qualifying campaign but their attacking prowess and ability to turn games has been on display since. Trailing 2-0 in a friendly against France in March, they clawed back to beat “Les Bleus” 3-2 at the Stade de France. But Colombia were unable to beat Australia a few days later in a goalless draw that highlighted the South American team’s sometimes erratic form.
With a formidable attack and a relatively manageable group, Colombia are highly competitive. Group H, where Colombia will face Japan, Senegal, and Poland, is the only one to lack a World Cup winner and should provide opportunities for the South Americans to rack up a few goals.
Struggling Japan considered underdogs
Japan have appeared at the World Cup five times, making their debut at the 1998 tournament in France. Since then, they have been a permanent fixture at the tournament. They have reached the round of 16 on two occasions, most recently in South Africa in 2010. They also reached the second round when they co-hosted the 2002 tournament with South Korea, losing 1-0 to Turkey.
Coach: Akira Nishino
Shinji Kagawa: The Borussia Dortmund midfielder has struggled to emulate the form that made him Japan’s star man going into Brazil 2014, but his club performances improved after coach Peter Stoeger took over the German side and the 29-year-old has since looked back to his best.
Yuto Nagatomo: Cap centurion Nagamoto, currently plying his trade for Galatasaray on loan from Inter Milan, is the most experienced member of a resilient Japan defence that conceded only seven goals in their 10 qualifying games. The 31-year-old may not possess the same pace of yesteryear but Nagatomo’s wealth of top-flight European experience could be crucial at the World Cup.
Keisuke Honda: Long Japan’s most famous footballing export, the 31-year-old midfielder can now be found playing for C.F. Pachuca in the Mexican top flight. Despite being somewhat off the radar, the former AC Milan player was recalled for the most recent friendlies. Honda will be a dangerous weapon for Nishino to call on from the bench.
Since qualifying, Japan have struggled, losing to Ukraine, Belgium and Brazil and drawing with Mali and Haiti in friendly matches. In these games they conceded 10 goals and scored six.
Japan will count themselves fortunate to have avoided the more dangerous top seeds by being drawn in Group H, alongside Poland. However, Senegal and Colombia, who make up the group, both possess the quality to hurt Japan. If Japan do make it into the second round, they are likely to face England or Belgium from Group G.