The absence of any of the really big names in theory means Group H could be the most open of all in Russia, although both Poland and Colombia might have something to say about that.
Aside from the hosts, the Poles – despite the presence of Robert Lewandowski up front – were the least glamorous of all the sides in Pot One when the draw was made last December.
They finished top of a qualifying group in which their main rivals were Denmark, and reached the quarter-finals at Euro 2016 – now Adam Nawalka’s side are hoping to take Poland to the knockout phase at a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
A strong squad spearheaded by Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski, but also featuring the likes of Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, Borussia Dortmund right-back Lukasz Piszczek, and Napoli striker Arek Milik, should be good enough to get them through this group.
Meanwhile, Colombia are aiming to build on their impressive showing in Brazil four years ago, when they reached the last eight.
James Rodriguez was one of the stars of that tournament and he is still there, while Radamel Falcao is fit this time to lead the attack after a knee injury kept him out in 2014. Colombia kick off their campaign against Japan in Saransk on June 19, and it is hard to know exactly what to expect of the Japanese given their build-up to the finals.
Veteran coach Vahid Halilhodzic was controversially sacked after taking the Blue Samurai into a sixth straight finals appearance.
Ex-Gamba Osaka boss Akira Nishino has replaced him and will hope to take a squad made up of a mix of home and Europe-based players out of the group stage. Senegal are dreaming of doing the same as they return to the tournament for the first time since reaching the quarter-finals in 2002.
Aliou Cisse has a talented squad at his disposal, led by Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, and they could be dangerous outsiders, especially if they can take something from Poland in their opener in Moscow. Whoever goes through could come up against Belgium or England in the last 16.
Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski announced that he is prepared to do the “donkey work” for Poland as team captain at the World Cup, as he plots a strategy to put his country on top of Group H.
With 16 goals in ten appearances on the road to Russia, Lewandowski was the top scorer in Europe’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers as Poland, currently ranked 10th in the world, finished top of their group.
Under head coach Adam Nawalka, they have a realistic chance of qualifying from Group H, opening their campaign against Senegal in Moscow on June 19 before facing Colombia and Japan.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski
Lewandowski aims to brush aside speculation about his Bayern Munich future by focusing on making up for his Euro 2016 disappointment with Poland at the World Cup in Russia.
The 29-year-old is coming off an impressive season which saw him finish as the Bundesliga’s top scorer for 2017-’18 with 29 goals. He scored 41 times in 48 matches in all competitions for Bayern. The star striker has a point to prove in Russia after netting just once in the finals of Euro 2016 as Poland exited in the quarter-finals.
World Cup history:
Poland first announced themselves on the big stage with an Olympic Gold in 1972. This is the eighth time they have qualified for the tournament. Poland finished third in the 1974 and the 1982 editions.
Lewandowski will come good and Poland should end up topping the group.
James Rodriguez and Monaco striker Radamel Falcao are the focal points in coach Jose Pekerman’s squad.
The pair’s inclusion comes after a battle with injury, a thigh problem for Rodriguez and left thigh for Falcao. The big absentee is Juventus midfielder Juan Cuadrado, who has been sidelined since an operation on a sports hernia.
Coach Pekerman’s men want to improve on their impressive run at the last World Cup in Brazil, when they lost to the hosts in the quarter-finals. Rodriguez still finished as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals. That six-goal haul included what was later adjudged the goal of the tournament, a stunning turn and volley from long-range in Colombia’s second round win over Uruguay.
Los Cafeteros’s fans expect then to finish top of a group that includes Japan, Poland and Senegal.
Key player: James Rodriguez
Rodriguez believes he has recaptured the sort of form that made him one of the stars of the 2014 World Cup as he targets a semi-final place with Colombia in this year’s tournament.
The skilful attacking midfielder lit up the finals in Brazil four years ago, finishing the tournament as winner of the coveted Golden Boot after leading the scoring charts with six goals in five matches.
World Cup history:
Colombia were Copa America winners in 2001. This is the sixth time they have qualified for the event. In 2014, they reached the quarter-finals, their best finish.
Colombia may not hit the heights of the previous edition but will still do enough to progress to the next stage.
Liverpool forward Sadio Mane will lead Senegal’s hopes at their second World Cup appearance in Russia. When pre-tournament no-hopers Senegal shredded the form book by reaching the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals in South Korea, 10-year-old Sadio Mane looked on in amazement.
His childhood idol was El Hadji Diouf, the blond attacker who was causing havoc among defences at the global showpiece, starting with reigning champions France.
Senegal stunned Les Bleus in the tournament opener in Seoul, held Denmark and Uruguay and overcame Sweden to make the quarter-finals before falling to Turkey.
Senegal have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since reaching the quarter-finals on their debut.
They begin their 2018 campaign against Poland in Moscow on June 19, before further Group H matches with Japan and Colombia. Incidentally, goalkeeper Khadim N’Diaye, who plays for Horoya in Guinea, is the only African-based player to make the list.
Key player: Sadio Mane
Mane will be expected to provide the majority of the team’s attacking threat along with Monaco striker Keita Balde, with West Ham midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate and Everton’s Idrissa Gueye also included.
The 26-year-old Mane has scored 19 goals in all competitions this season for Liverpool, helping the side finish fourth in the Premier League and reach the Champions League final.
World Cup history:
Senegal finished runners-up in the African Cup of Nations in 2002. The same year, they reached the quarter-finals in the World Cup. This is their first appearance in the showpiece event since then.
Senegal will narrowly miss out on a place in the last-16. If Sane and co fire, however, there is every chance they will go through at the expense of Colombia.
Trouble-hit Japan will hope star power can reverse their flagging fortunes during the tournament. Nishino, who took charge after predecessor Halilhodzic was controversially fired last month, took no risks as he turned to his old guard, including talismanic forward Keisuke Honda and playmaker Shinji Kagawa.
Japan will be playing in their sixth successive World Cup, and have twice reached the last 16 – in 2010 and as co-hosts in 2002. The two Shinjis – Okazaki and Kagawa – who have been struggling with injuries, recently returned to the side but since, have been struggling for form during the buildup to the tournament.
Kagawa and Keisuke Honda were two of those thought to have been at loggerheads with Halilhodzic, who was unceremoniously dumped by JFA president Kozo Tashima citing a breakdown of communication between the players and the firebrand Franco-Bosnian.
Former coach Phillipe Troussier slammed Japan’s messy state of affairs ahead of the World Cup. “Even if they play with [Jose] Mourinho or Arsene Wenger, it would be so difficult for Japan to get to the last 16,” the Frenchman said.
Key player: Shinji Kagawa
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Kagawa recently put in an eye-catching display against Paraguay in a friendly, scoring two goals and setting up as many. The former Manchester United midfielder has looked a different player since the turn of the year for Borussia Dortmund. Kagawa needs to be at the top of his game for Japan to have a chance of progressing to the knockout stages.
World Cup history:
Japan are four-time Asian Cup winners – 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011. This is their sixth World Cup. They have twice reached the last 16 stage, in 2002 and 2010.
Japan will finish at the bottom of the group. They might even struggle to earn a point as Nishino has had very little time with the group.
(With inputs from AFP)
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