World Cup Group H is one of the most evenly matched in the tournament, but who will qualify from the group? Read this 2018 World Cup Group H preview expert analysis and predictions before the start of the tournament.
World Cup Group H prediction: What do the odds say?
Elo World Ranking: 19
Previous best performance: 3rd (1974, 2982)
Top scorer in qualifying: Robert Lewandowski (16 goals)
Key player: Robert Lewandowski
Odds to advance from group: 1.520*
Odds to win World Cup: 61.430*
Poland qualified impressively from UEFA qualifying Group E losing just one game in the process. Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski was integral to that success with 16 goals across the 10 games. Lewandowski is the captain and record scorer for the Polish national team and will be an important presence for them in Russia.
This Polish team possesses more quality than just Lewandowski however. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has been groomed as Gianluigi Buffon’s successor at Juventus and will be protected by the experienced Kamil Glik and Lukas Piszcek. Grzegorz Krychowiak may have endured a tough season at West Brom but he is a handy performer at international level.
One of the most interesting players in the Polish squad is Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski. The young midfielder is likely to occupy a free role behind Lewandowski where his ability to break defensive lines will be vital. The young Pole completes an elite number of dribbles per 90 and is capable of breaking down packed defences with an unpredictable moment of quality.
Poland’s supporting cast fall into the solid but unspectacular category. Bartosz Bereszynski is defensively sound but offers little going forward. The midfield position next to Krychowiak and Glik’s centre-half partner will probably be occupied by players drawn from Poland’s domestic league, which is a couple of tiers below Europe’s best divisions. Those players will need to step up a level against the other challengers in this group.
One area of concern for Poland could be their usually dependable right side. Piszczek and Blaszczykowski have formed a very productive partnership at club and international level for years, but both are now 32 and past their best. The pair are also increasingly injury prone with Blaszczykowski not making an appearance since November. Piszczek has been routinely rested at Dortmund after returning from a ruptured knee ligament.
It is especially important those two are up and running considering the biggest threats to their progression are particularly strong down their left-hand sides. Senegal are likely play the exciting Keita Balde in his favoured left-wing role whilst Colombia often position Lewandowski’s Bayern Munich teammate James Rodriguez in a floating left-midfield role. If Poland’s veterans are off the pace then their opponents could get some joy in that area of the pitch.
This is a wide open group and the Poles will do well to qualify. They are unlikely to take maximum points from their opening two games (Senegal followed by Colombia) and will probably need maximum points against Japan to advance. In such a tight group a bet on Poland not to win group H at 1.416* could offer value.
Elo World Ranking: 19
Previous best performance: Quarter-finals (2002)
Top scorer in qualifying: Diafra Sakho, Cheikh N’Doye (2 goals)
Key player: Kalidou Koulibaly
Odds to advance from group: 2.440*
Odds to win World Cup: 212.510*
Senegal’s qualification campaign looks fairly straightforward on paper. The Senegalese qualified undefeated with four wins and two draws from CAF Group D.
However, what the table doesn’t show is the controversial initial fixture away to South Africa which Senegal lost 2-1. This match had to be replayed due to the fact the game was fixed by the referee. The Senegalese would ultimately have qualified anyway but that game blemished what was otherwise an assured qualifying campaign.
The Senegalese possess the strongest team in Africa. In terms of transfer value this squad is rated as the most expensive in the group and contains talents fit to grace the best teams in this tournament. The headline names are Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly.
Mane has been overshadowed by the brilliance of Mo Salah this season but he has had an impressive season of his own. The wide man has scored double-figures in the premier league whilst also producing chances for his teammates, not to mention firing goals throughout Liverpool’s Champions League run. He will also be able to play in his favoured right-wing role in the Senegal side. Mane has played predominantly on the left at club level this season to accomodate Salah but he prefers having the option to drive outside full-backs on his stronger foot.
Whilst Mane is the star name most people would associate with Senegal, it is Koulibaly who is their most important player. He is amongst the finest ball-playing centre-halves in the world. Kalidou averaged 88.8 passes per game in Serie A this season, the second highest of any player in the league. Koulibaly is a defensive powerhouse and will be essential to Senegal’s success at the tournament. Expect him to launch attacks from deep with his exceptional range of passing.
He is joined in defence by, depending on fitness, Kara Mbodj or Salif Sane who are very strong defensively but do not have the passing range of Koulibaly. Bordeaux left-back Youssouf Sabaly is a dependable defender whilst right-back is occupied by Lamine Gassama who plays for Anlayaspor in the Turkish Superlig. The backline will need to be on top form to protect a goalkeeping cohort which is not particularly strong.
The Senegalese midfield will likely be drawn entirely from the Premier League with Cheikh Kouyate, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Badou Ndiaye all regulars for their club sides. In attack Mane has a talented supporting cast including Keita Balde, M’baye Niang, Ismaila Sarr and Diafra Sakho who are inconsistent but capable of producing game-deciding moments. The experienced Moussa Sow will be a useful addition from the bench.
Considering the talent levels of this squad, Senegal are perhaps slightly underrated heading into the tournament. They are favourites against Japan and should be capable of taking points from one of Colombia and Poland, if not both. Odds of 1.826* look an attractive price on them to win over 3.5 points.
Elo World Ranking: 8
Previous best performance: Quarter-finals (2014)
Top scorer in qualifying: James Rodriguez (6 goals)
Key player: James Rodriguez
Odds to advance from group: 1.441*
Odds to win World Cup: 49.350*
After a superb tournament in 2014 Colombia are back with an arguably stronger team. James Rodriguez has developed into a superstar since that tournament whilst Radamel Falcao will be eager to play in his first World Cup, having missed Brazil 2014 through injury.
Despite their quality, a strong start to South American qualifying was followed by a winless final five games which included a surprising defeat at home to Paraguay, placing their automatic qualification place in jeopardy. This underlined some of the inconsistency within the side which will need to be addressed in Brazil.
It is unsurprising that this Colombian squad can look shaky at times. The centre-back pairing of Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez of Spurs is incredibly talented but also one of the tournament’s least experienced at international level with just 19 caps between the pair. Their protection in midfield is also not of the highest quality with Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez approaching the end of their careers. David Ospina will need to use his experience and support his centre-backs at key moments.
Fabra and Arias at full-back provide excellent attacking options and both will be watched closely by scouts at the tournament. A lot could be asked of those two depending on the way coach José Pekerman sets his team up.
They trialled a 4-2-3-1 system in the friendly win over France which would allow for Muriel, James, Falcao and Cuadrado to be fielded in the same team but leaves the flanks open to being counterattacked. This is particularly true on Fabra’s side where Muriel is more used to playing as a central striker and may shirk his defensive responsibilities.
The other option for Pekerman is a 4-4-2 in the classic “double six” configuration with James and Cuadrado occupying the wide positions and Duvan Zapata providing a more physical presence in a two alongside Falcao. This would often see Sanchez and Aguilar outnumbered in the midfield which could prove problematic. The energy of Senegal and line-breaking ability of Zielinski could be too much to handle for an overstretched Colombian central midfield.
Despite this Colombia’s individual quality should still navigate them through what could be the tightest group in the tournament. James Rodriguez has already shown up at a tournament in a big way whilst a resurgent Falcao will hope to seize his final chance to perform at a World Cup.
This should all be too much for Japan in the opening game where Colombia will need a win to prevent the pressure piling on against their group rivals. Colombia are 1.800* to win their opening fixture and should have more than enough quality to do so.
Elo World Ranking: 44
Previous best performance: Quarter-finals (2002, 2010)
Top scorer in qualifying: Genki Haraguchi (4 goals)
Key player: Maya Yoshida
Odds to advance from group: 3.040*
Odds to win World Cup: 363.580*
Japan arrive at this World Cup in an odd position having sacked manager Vahid Halilhodzic with just two months to go before the tournament. It’s the toughest possible start for new coach Akira Nishino as his first competitive game in charge of the national side will be their World Cup opener against Colombia.
In the ultimate show of prioritising system over individuals Halilhodzic opted to bench their most talented players -Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda- instead favouring a more physical playstyle utilising a target man. It may not have been pretty but it was effective in qualifying. The Japanese were safely qualified prior to their final match.
Halilhodzic’s pragmatism led Algeria to the round of 16 in Brazil and the Japanese hired him to help them achieve the same. How the team lines up under Nishino is unknown with the former Gamba Osaka coach likely to bring his star players back into the side at the expense of those who performed well in qualifying.
The Japanese will need to adapt back to their technical, possession-focused style in time to incorporate those players. They have just three friendly fixtures to do so before the World Cup begins.
Adding to Nishino’s problems is the injury to arguably his most important player, Maya Yoshida. Yoshida is the one player in the defence who plays in a top league. He is also the tallest player in a squad that may struggle to defend set-pieces against the height of the other sides in Group H. Out of the qualified teams only Saudi Arabia have a lower average height than the Japanese.
It is hard to see Japan producing a surprise at this tournament considering the turmoil that has affected what is usually a well-organised team. They are the outsiders in this group and are unlikely to improve upon a 2014 campaign which saw them pick up just one point.
They are available at 1.649* to win less than 3.5 points and should provide value at that price considering the challenges they are likely to face at the tournament.