Group H is perhaps the most open in the tournament. While every team will fancy their chances of progressing, Poland and Colombia are the favorites for the top two spots.
Poland, who were unfortunate to lose to eventual winners Portugal on penalties in the Euro 2016 quarter-final, will again be looking to prolific striker Robert Lewandowski. Every defense will be familiar with Lewandowski – who recently announced he wants to leave German giants Bayern Munich – but that doesn’t mean they can stop him.
Colombia’s qualifying campaign wasn’t as comfortable as they would have liked but they remain a good side and a repeat of 2014, when they reached the World Cup quarter-finals, is not impossible. This is Senegal’s second finals appearance and they will want to emulate their first in 2002 when they went to the quarter-finals including a famous victory over former colonial masters France. Japan’s preparation has been less than ideal. They sacked the coach who led them through qualification but had sidelined popular stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa (see more below). Under the new coach, the duo were named in Japan’s finals squad and must now justify their selection.
Check out previews for Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F and Group G.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
Robert Lewandowski (Poland): €93.8m* ($109.8m)
*According to CIES Football Observatory
ONE TO WATCH?
Davinson Sanchez (Colombia)
The Colombian centre-back is only 21 but the £42 million ($56m) Tottenham Hotspur paid to sign him from Ajax last August already looks a bargain. Expected to be introduced slowly into the first team, injuries to others and his own form meant Sánchez played 31 times for Spurs in his debut season. Quick and strong, Sanchez can mix it with the toughest strikers but is prone to the odd lapse in concentration. The pressure will be even higher representing his country at the World Cup, but this young man is capable of taking it all in his stride.
COACH TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Akira Nishino (Japan)
Nishino, a former national team player who coached his country at the 1996 Olympics, was only appointed in April. But the real story is his predecessor’s sacking. Vahid Halilhodzic guided Japan through qualifying but after disappointing friendly results and seeing an experimental squad defeated by arch rivals South Korea in the East Asian Cup, the Bosnian coach was sacked. Citing a lack of confidence from the squad, the Japan Football Association instead appointed former technical director Nishino. Halilhodzic has not taken the decision lightly, launching a lawsuit against the association and its president for one yen ($0.009) in damages. It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Halilhodzic, who has reached the World Cup with three different teams, but only taken charge for one tournament. He managed Algeria at the 2014 finals and reached the finals with Ivory Coast in 2010 but was sacked before the tournament.
No diplomatic disasters in recent times between these four countries from four different continents. Relations between Colombia and Japan, for example, were officially established 110 years ago (with a 12-year interruption around World War II).
No weak links in Group H but Poland’s two-tone shirts are pipped by Colombia’s modern take on the country’s 1990 World Cup jersey. Their bold away shirt is more likely to divide opinion.
MATCH ADVERTISERS WILL BE SCRAMBLING FOR?
From Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Senegal’s Sadio Mané to Colombia’s James Rodríguez and Japan’s Shinji Kagawa, there are plenty of crowd-pleasing players in the group. Poland vs Colombia on June 24 is one of several fixtures that catch the eye.
WORLD CUP NERDS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO…
Colombia matches. None of Los Cafeteros’ 18 tournament matches have ended goalless. The US (33) and Austria (29) are the only other teams to have played more matches without a 0-0.
Poland to improve their recent World Cup record. This is their eighth finals appearance but they have lost six of their last eight matches without scoring. Their last clean sheet came in the 1986 finals.
A boring group. There aren’t any tournament favorites in Group H but there are four relatively evenly-matched teams with different styles which should make for some exciting matches.
WILL ANY OF THEM WIN IT?
While Poland have twice finished third at World Cup finals and Colombia have the players to cause any team problems, it would be a shock if any Group H side got further than the quarter-finals.