The 2018 World Cup taking place in Russia starts tomorrow. Nigeria News continues the countdown to the showpiece event with analysis of all the groups and the chances of the teams in each group.
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The big question at this stage is who would advance from the group stage to the round of 16?
You can find the details of the squad list of all the teams, match schedules and venues of all the teams here.
Group H analysis and prediction: Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan
The last time the Poles were at the World Cup was in Germany in 2006. They hope to do better than the last time where they exited the tournament at the group stage after winning one match.
And the draw couldn’t have been kinder to the 10th ranked team as Group H isn’t considered a difficult group.
And Coach Adam Nawalka is lucky to be blessed with a generation of players who are playing at the top of their game at the moment. On the road to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the team won 8 matches, drew one and lost one.
Being close to Russia, Poland would have the backing of a large number of fans to cheer them up. It would almost be like playing at home for them.
And that could be a decisive factor.
The counter-attacking strategy of the team plays to the strength of top scorer and star player Robert Lewandowski. In Lewandowski, Poland have one of the most lethal stickers on world football. He was the top European scorer in the qualifiers.
Other key players to watch out for include Arkadiusk Milik and Jakub Blaszczykowsky in forward and midfield positions respectively. Lukasz Piszczek is another important stalwart of the team from his full-back position in defense.
Senegal stunned the world at the opening match of the 2002 World Cup. They defeated the defeating champions France by a lone goal. It was supposed to be a watershed moment for Senegalese football.
But it wasn’t to be. The 2018 World Cup would be the first time they would be appearing at a World Cup since then.
Last time out, they went all the way to the quarter-final. The 28th ranked country could still achieve that target. They were lucky to be drawn in a very open group. And depending on what happens elsewhere, they could even make it to the round of 16.
Coach Aliou Cisse would hope his cautious approach to matches convince the critics that is the best tactics for his team.
Sadio Mane, the Liverpool star forward, is the obvious standout player in the team. Senegal though have a strong spine running through the team.
They have two good midfield enforcers in Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham and Gana Gueye of Everton. At the back, Kalidou Koulibaly, aka The Wall, is the defensive mainstay.
Coach Cisse would also have a choice of very good forwards to partner Mane.
16 ranked Columbia provided some of the best highlights of the World Cup four years ago when they reached the quarter-finals. Two of the standout players four years ago, star midfielder James Rodriquez and forward Radamel Falcao, are still around.
So also is the coach Jose Pekerman. By now he must know the dynamics of the team completely to understand what works and what doesn’t.
Though Columbia have many gifted, technical players, Pekerman prefers to concentrate on defense and counter-attack, especially against strong teams. That could be one reason the team is not known for scoring many goals.
Apart from Rodriquez and Falcao, other key players include the defender Davison Sanchez of Spurs and the midfielder Wilmar Barrios whose defensive awareness is key to how the team plays.
The goalkeeper, David Ospina, could be a weakness as he spent much of last season playing second fiddle to Peter Cech at Arsenal. His match rustiness can lead to costly mistakes.
For many of the players of the 60th ranked Japan, the 2018 World Cup would be the last shot at making an impact at a World Cup. The FA didn’t help their case as the coach who qualified them to the tournament, Vahid Halilhodizic, was sacked two months ago.
In came Akira Nishino to try and build trust and confidence in the squad once again.
Coach Nishino, who made a name for winning the Asian Champions League 10 years ago, would hope the players are not too old to stand the rigors of the World Cup. For the records, at an average age of 28, Japan has one of the oldest squads at the tournament.
For the players, getting out of the group is the first priority. But an inability to adapt to a new coach’s tactics could seriously undermine that objective.
However experienced players like Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki would depend on their pedigree to salvage something to avoid a debacle.
Other key players that could help restore hope to Japan include Keisuke Honda and Defender Yuto Nagamoto.
Every World Cup has a Group H. The sort of Group where there is no clear-cut favorite and nobody expects any of the teams to win the tournament.
This makes it difficult to predict who goes through and who misses out.
Many bookmakers tip Columbia as the real dark horses of the 2018 World Cup though. All things being equal, they would go through alongside one other team.
Senegal would really look up to their front line to provide the goals. If they don’t suffer from stage fright, there is no reason not to pick up on of the spots for the round of 16.
Columbia and Senegal to go through.