Japan v Poland, Thursday 28th June, 15:00
Group H is shaping up to be the pick of the bunch with three teams in with a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages. Only the Poles have disappointed, and Japan, Senegal and Colombia have all produced moments of quality that have given them hope of a longer stay in Russia.
The Japanese, in particular, will fancy their chances, and having come from behind twice to earn their 2-2 draw with Senegal, they showed fire in the belly – a must when crunch time for qualification for the knockout phase arrives.
Having won their opener against Colombia – assisted considerably by the South Americans going down to ten men after just three minutes – the Japanese knew that avoiding defeat in the Senegal game would set them up nicely for a tilt at the second phase. That they emerged with a point from a cracking game was a testament not only to their resolve but also their ability to create chances; something not lost on the Senegal coach Aliou Cisse, who admitted post-match that Japan were the better team.
As it transpired, goals from Inui and Honda were their reward for some enterprising football and despite entering the competition with low expectations, they now find themselves well and truly in the mix – and if they make it to the Round of 16, they’ll be tricky opponents.
The Poles, in sharp contrast, have been a major let-down. Despite having their line led by one of the world’s top strikers, in the form of Robert Lewandowski, they have been toothless up front and the man himself has looked a pale shadow of the player who scores goals for fun in the Bundesliga. Their build-up play has been slowed, disjointed and laboured, and in truth, they have never recovered from a really poor start to their opening game against Senegal that concluded with an own goal by Thiago Cionek. From thereon in it was an uphill struggle, one they failed to tackle.
With an ageing squad, some of whom will have seen this tournament as their last chance to make a mark on the biggest stage, the Poles were unable to live up to their FIFA world ranking of 8 and instead they find themselves in damage limitation territory. All they have left to play for is pride and to avoid the humiliation of being Group H’s wooden spoon recipients. It’s an indictment of the Poles paucity when we consider Japan started the tournament 53 places below them in the FIFA rankings, yet kick off this final group game as favourites.
The match remains a tricky one to call. Japan, with a good chance of qualifying, will be nervy and events in Samara, where Senegal meet Colombia, will clearly impact on how they approach this game. As group leaders, a win or a draw will take them through but to concede an early goal against the Poles would set the nerves jangling. They’ll be keen not to concede, and so a low-scoring draw is a distinct possibility.
Senegal and Colombia in Winner-Takes-All Group H Battle
Senegal v Colombia, Thursday 28th June, 15:00
This promises to be an absolute cracker and is what the World Cup is all about. A winner takes all tie, with the losers probably going home – effectively a knockout tie before the knockout stages even begin. And it’s another tricky one to predict.
After an awful start against Japan, Colombia bounced back in grand style against Poland with a free-flowing display of cultured, attacking football, with a fully fit James Rodriguez pulling the strings. Their 3-0 win in Kazan on Sunday to eliminate the Poles kept their own hopes of a prolonged stay in Russia alive. However, Colombia currently sit third in the group, a point behind both Japan and Senegal – who beat Poland 2-1 in their second game – and so there is still plenty of work to be done before they qualify for the second phase of the competition.
Intriguingly, a point will be enough to take Senegal through to the last 16 but, barring a Japanese capitulation against Poland, Colombia are likely to need a win in Samara. Good news for them, however, is that their big players are finding some form and, in addition to Rodriguez, top striker Radamel Falcao netted his first World Cup goal in the win over Poland.
While a point will be enough for Senegal, it was telling that their head coach, Aliou Cisse, was openly unimpressed with his side’s performance against Japan and he has warned his players that major improvements are needed if they are to overcome the Colombians. He’ll be looking to his big names for some big performances, in particular, Sadio Mane, but with M’Baye Niang emerging as an important player on the big stage, there is a dual threat for the Colombians to contend with. This makes the Senegalese dangerous opponents.
For the Colombians, Falcao will be key, particularly if Rodriguez is allowed to play with the freedom he showed against Poland, and there is a feeling among the pundits and experts that their opener against Japan was a red herring as they played most of it with ten men. The general view is that the real Colombia showed up against Poland, which is bad news for Senegal.
As ever, expect it to be tight and nervy, with drama aplenty. The bookies have the Colombians odds-on – with good reason – and so the value is with the Senegalese but don’t expect a goalfest.