Group H: It’s Lewandowski vs Rodriguez

Group H, featuring Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan, makes the group fascinating and truly universal, with teams from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.

Robert Lewandowski scored an impressive 16 goals in the qualifiers – more than anybody else – and will look to carry momentum into the World Cup.   -  AFP

On the day the World Cup draw was made, Poland captain Robert Lewandowski tweeted: “I remember your great goals during the last World Cup. I hope you will remember mine from Russia.” That tweet was addressed to his Bayern Munich teammate James Rodriguez, the Colombian star who stunned the world in Brazil four years ago.

 

The two gifted goal-poachers, who helped their team retain the Bundesliga crown, will come face to face on June 24. That match could well decide who wins Group H. The presence of Senegal and Japan makes the group fascinating and truly universal, with teams from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.

Poland

In Robert Lewandowski, Poland has one of the world’s best strikers. But he isn’t the only reason the eastern European team could go far in the tournament. It was impressive in the qualifying phase, losing only one match in its group. The side scored 28 goals as it topped the pool and earned a ticket to Russia directly.

In goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, defenders Kamil Glik and Lukas Piszczek, midfielders Grzegorz Krychowiak, Piotr Zeilinsky and Karol Linetty and striker Arkadiusz Milik, Poland has men who could play their role adequately. And if their captain continues to be as free-scoring he has been at the qualifiers and the Bundesliga, the Poles could make their return to the World Cup after 12 years count.

Key player

Robert Lewandowski

In 2015, Lewandowski slammed five goals within nine minutes after coming on as a substitute for Bayern Munich against VfL Wolfsburg. Three years on, he is as uncontainable at the goalmouth. He scored 16 goals in the qualifiers – more than anybody else – and with 29, he was the top-scorer in Germany's premier league as well.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Bartosz Bialkowski, Lukasz Fabianski, Wojciech Szczesny.

Defenders: Jan Bednarek, Bartosz Bereszynski, Thiago Cionek, Kamil Glik,Lukasz Piszczek, Artur Jedrzejczyk, Michal Pazdan.

Midfielders: Jakub Blaszczykowski, Jacek Goralski, Kamil Grosicki, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Rafal Kurzawa, Karol Linetty, Slawomir Peszko, Maciej Rybus, Piotr Zielinski.

Forwards: Dawid Kownacki, Robert Lewandowski, Arkadiusz Milik, Lukasz Teodorczyk.

World Cup record

7 appearances

Third place in 1974, 1982

Colombia

Four years ago in Brazil, Colombia took the world by surprise by reaching the quarterfinals, where it went down fighting to the host. Now, the team looks even stronger, especially up front, with striker Radamel Falcao set to make his World Cup debut after missing the last edition due to injury.

 

Falcao will be the ideal foil for James Rodriguez, the winner of the Golden Boot in Brazil. The defence – with Santiago Arias, Frank Fabra, Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina – and midfield – Juan Cuadrado – both look solid.

But if the side wants to repeat its success at the last World Cup, it will have to put up a better effort than it did at the qualifiers, in which it finished fourth.

Key player

James Rodriguez

Rodriguez spearheaded Colombia’s memorable campaign in Brazil, scoring six goals, including the one – against Uruguay in the second round – that was voted as the best of the World Cup by visitors on FIFA’s official website. He was 22 then. Over the last four years, he has been busy living up to the huge expectations.

Squad

Goalkeepers: David Ospina, Camilo Vargas, Jose Fernando Cuadrado.

Defenders: Cristian Zapata, Davinson Sanchez, Santiago Arias, Oscar Murillo, Frank Fabra, Johan Mojica, Yerry Mina.

Midfielders: Wilmar Barrios, Carlos Sanchez, Jefferson Lerma, Jose Izquierdo, James Rodriguez, Abel Aguilar, Mateus Uribe, Juan Fernando Quintero, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado.

Forwards: Radamel Falcao, Miguel Borja, Carlos Bacca, Luis Fernando Muriel.

World Cup record

5 appearances

Quarterfinals in 2014

Senegal

Senegal has played at the World Cup only once before and that appearance is still talked about – the side shocked defending champion France in its first match and went on to reach the quarters in 2002. But Senegal may not be thinking about the last eight at the moment. The team is not strong enough, and the group it’s placed in is difficult.

 

However, Senegal has the quality to entertain hopes of toppling its more fancied and experienced rivals and is banking on men like Sadio Mane, fresh off a fine season with Liverpool, Cheikhou Kouyate, Idrissa Gueye, Keita Balde and Kalidou Koulibaly.

Key player

Sadio Mane

Mane was a part of Liverpool’s terrifying trio up front that destroyed defences in England and the rest of Europe this past season, in which he scored 20 goals from 44 matches across competitions. In Russia, he won’t have to share the spotlight with Egyptian Mohamed Salah and Roberto Brazil’s Firmino, and Mane could well be one of the strikers to light up this World Cup.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Abdoulaye Diallo, Alfred Gomis, Khadim Ndiaye.

Defenders: Lamine Gassama, Saliou Ciss, Kalidou Koulibaly, Kara Mbodii, Youssouf Sabaly, Salif Sane, Moussa Wague.

Midfielders: Idrissa Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyate, Alfred Ndiaye, Badou Ndiaye, Cheikh Ndoye, Ismaila Sarr.

Forwards: Keita Balde, Mame Biram Diouf, Moussa Konate, Sadio Mane, Mbaye Niang, Diafra Sakho, Moussa Sow.

World Cup record

1 appearances

Quarterfinals in 2002

Japan

Japans hasn’t missed out on a single World Cup since debuting in 1998, twice making it to the knockout stages. But it will find the going a lot tougher in Russia, where it’s been placed with three higher-ranked rivals. But you can’t write off its chances straight away – the side is too experienced for that.

 

Many of their players, like Keisuke Honda, Eiji Kawashima, Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe, have played in the last two World Cups. Maya Yoshida, who played in Brazil, is another seasoned campaigner. And there’s some exciting young talent in the form of Takumo Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi.

Key player

Shinji Okazaki

Okazaki is one of Japan’s biggest success stories. He is the all-time third highest scorer for the national side, besides having an outstanding record in top-flight club football. He contributed handsomely to Leicester City’s Premier League title in 2015-16. He’s had another good season in England this year, and his country needs him to find the net with consistency in Russia as well.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima, Masaaki Higashiguchi, Kosuke Nakamura.

Defenders: Yuto Nagatomo, Tomoaki Makino, Wataru Endo, Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Gotoku Sakai, Gen Shoji, Naomichi Ueda.

Midfielders: Makoto Hasebe, Keisuke Honda, Takashi Inui, Shinji Kagawa, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Genki Haraguchi, Takashi Usami, Gaku Shibasaki, Ryota Oshima.

Forwards: Shinji Okazaki, Yuya Osako, Yoshinori Muto.

World Cup record

5 appearances 5

Round of 16 in 2002, 2010