THE poor old Socceroos drew three teams in the world’s top 12. This group only has one — and it’s debatable whether Poland should even be there.
Group H does promise to be one of the more competitive though. Poland, Colombia and Senegal all have legitimate chances of topping it. Japan should be competitive as well.
It’s been a long time since Poland reached a finals let a lone did anything of significance but with Robert Lewandowski in their ranks, they will be favourites.
But if James Rogriguez repeats his heroics from Brazil four years ago or Sadio Mane reprises his form from Liverpool, then Colombia and Senegal can cause real problems.
KEY GAME: Poland v Colombia (Monday, June 25, 4am, Kazan): It’s probably safe to say the winner of this will be in prime position to claim the group. Both should post victories in their opening games, setting up a virtual winner-takes-all contest. It could mean the difference of playing Belgium or England in the round of 16.
It’s hard to justify how Poland are ranked so highly by FIFA but the benefit of their top 10 placement is a group where they will be overwhelming favourites to progress as winners. They looked good in qualifying — especially with star striker Robert Lewandowski contributing 16, including three hat-tricks — eventually finishing five points in front of Denmark, but they haven’t even reached the finals in the last Cup editions. They did reach the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 before going out on penalties to eventual winners Portugal.
Key player: Lewandowski is a genuine superstar. His speed, movement and goalscoring instincts are perhaps only bettered by Ronaldo and Messi. He has scored 52 goals in 93 games for Poland, although he was far from his best at Euro 2016. The Poles are far from a one-man band though. In Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski they have two well-credentialed goalkeepers. Kamil Glik provides a commanding presence in defence while Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski is emerging as a real talent on the international scene.
Recent form: The goals dried up after qualification, with the Poles going three games without finding the back of the net. They did though put three past South Korea in their most recent match at the end of March. Lewandowski remains the linchpin and he got on the scoresheet again — although they faded badly in the final 10 minutes and almost let the Koreans back into the game.
World Cup history: Back in the days of Grzegorz Lato, Kazimierz Deyna and Zbigniew Boniek, Poland were among the best teams in the world. They finished third in both 1974 and 1982 but haven’t risen even remotely close to those heights since. They failed to qualify for the last two editions in Brazil and South Africa and went out meekly in the first round in both Germany and Japan/South Korea before that.
Coach: Did you know Adam Nawalka was voted to the team of the tournament at the 1978 World Cup as a 19-year-old? Injuries ruined the rest of his career but he has certainly made an impression as a coach. The 60-year-old has been with the national team since October 2013. He has presided over 24 wins from 45 games.
FIFA ranking: 10
No matter what they achieve in the future Senegal will always have 2002. Sixteen years ago they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Cup history when they toppled world champions France in the opening game. It’s been slim pickings since but there is renewed hope, especially with Sadio Mane leading the line. They were unbeaten — four wins and two draws — in the final round of qualifying but only reached the quarterfinals of the African Nations Cup last year in Gabon.
Key player: Easy choice! Sadio Mane has been a revelation for Liverpool this season, scoring at will and is one of the main reasons why they reached the Champions League decider. While he hasn’t been as prolific on the international stage — and hasn’t really been tested outside of Africa — he is sure to pose a huge threat to sluggish opposing defences.
Recent form: They have played sparingly of late — and hardly against top-class opposition. With s Mane absent, they held Uzbekistan to a 1-1 draw in Morocco. Four days later they drew 0-0 with Bosnia Herzogovina.
World Cup history: It all boils down to one year — but what a year it was. They drew the opening game of the tournament in Seoul and left a lasting impression, beating defending champions France thanks to a goal from Papa Bouba Diop. Not content with that result they then drew 1-1 with Denmark before a double from the redoubtable Diop ensured a 3-3 draw with Uruguay — and progression to the round of 16. There they faced Sweden and a golden goal deep into the first period of extra time by Henri Camara propelled them into the final eight. But their luck ran out against Turkey when a golden goal four minutes into extra time from İlhan Mansız eliminated them.
Coach: Former national skipper Aliou Cissé — who led the side to their biggest achievement on the world stage in 2002 — has been in charge since 2015.
FIFA ranking: 28
The Socceroos got a good look at them in London recently and were very fortunate to emerge with a draw. One of star performers four years ago in Brazil, Colombia could well take this tournament by storm as well, especially if James Rodriguez is in the mood. Qualification though got a bit nervy in the end. In fact they only guaranteed automatic entry in the final game in Peru. Rodriguez scored the decisive goal in a 1-1 draw. To say their campaign was inconsistent would be a massive understatement. They couldn’t get things going at home especially, but picked up points when they needed them most to take fourth spot.
Key player: Attacking dynamo Rodriguez took the 2014 tournament by storm, scoring one of the goals of the tournament against Uruguay. He has subsequently had an underwhelming stint for Real Madrid before rediscovering his best for Bayern Munich. He remains one of the best players in the world.
Recent form: It’s been a little up and down. They turned on the style to memorably topple France in Paris with some clinical breakaway goals — and that came after a 4-0 hammering of China. But mixed in with those have been the scoreless draw against the Socceroos and a surprise 2-1 loss to South Korea.
World Cup history: Hosts of the 1962 World Cup, Colombia had only once made it past the group stages prior to 2014. That was back in 1990 when they qualified for the round of 16 as one of the top third place finishers. There though they succumbed to a Roger Milla double in extra time as Cameroon caused a huge boilover. Their campaign four years later in the USA was marred by an early exit and the subsequent murder of defender Andres Escobar after he scored an own goal against the hosts. Four years ago in Brazil though was a different story. Stacked with top-class talent like Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Valdes, they won all their group games before a Rodriguez double propelled them past Uruguay in the round of 16. Matched against Brazil in the quarterfinals, Colombia gave a good account of themselves and were perhaps a little unlucky to lose 2-1.
Coach: Veteran Argentinian Jose Pekerman is in his sixth season in charge. He is so revered in his adopted homeland that he received his Colombian citizenship from the country’s president.
FIFA ranking: 16
Their lowly ranking can be a little deceiving. As the Socceroos can corroborate, the Blue Samurai are an impressive outfit. They bounced back from an opening match home loss to the United Arab Emirates to qualify top of their group. That defeat proved a mere aberration as the only other points they dropped along the way were to Australia (1-1 draw in Melbourne), Iraq (1-1 in Tehran) and then Saudi Arabia (1-0 in Jeddah in a largely meaningless game at the end of the group stage). Their best performance came when it really mattered, a 2-0 win over Socceroos in Saitama. But this is a tough group to emerge from and another first round exit looms large.
Key player: Easy to say Shinji Kagawa, or Keisuke Honda, Genki Haraguchi, or even Leicester’s Shinji Okasaki — but Japan just may go with a bunch of young guns. Names like Yosuke Ideguchi — who is playing in Spain on loan from English club Leeds United — and 23-year-old Takuma Asano — who will play on loan in Germany next season from Arsenal — will demand attention.
Recent form: Japan have certainly been one of the more busy teams in recent times. And wins have been few and far between. Ukraine and South Korea have beaten them while unheralded Mali held them to a 1-1 draw. In fact they have lost five of the 10 matches played since they beat Australia in November last year.
World Cup history: First made the big show in 1998 in France but dropped all three group games to Argentina, Croatia and Jamaica. They haven’t missed an appearance since. On home soil four years later they stormed into the round of 16, topping a group that featured Belgium, Russia and Tunisia. But they were knocked out by Turkey. Famously part of the Socceroos’ group in Germany in 2006, they failed to win a game. But in South Africa in 2010 — where they fielded perhaps one of their greatest teams of all time, they beat both Cameroon and Denmark to reach the round of 16. There though they fell to Paraguay on penalties after a 0-0 draw. Their efforts four years ago in Brazil were forgettable as defeats to Colombia and Ivory Coast consigned them to an early exit.
Coach: Japan sensationally sacked Vahid Halilhodzic only last month and appointed former technical director Akira Nishino as his replacement until the end of the their Cup run.
FIFA ranking: 60
June 20: Colombia v Japan, Saransk
Poland v Senegal, Moscow
June 25: Japan v Senegal, Yekaterinburg
Poland v Colombia, Kazan
June 29: Japan v Poland, Volgograd
Senegal v Colombia, Samara