2018 World Cup Group H Preview: Attacking Stars Should Decide Tight Race

Robert Lewandowski, James Rodriguez and Sadio Mane headline a list of attacking standouts in the World Cup's balanced Group H.
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The World Cup's Group D, which contains Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria will likely be considered the official “Group of Death” going into Russia 2018 but if a true GoD is each of the four having a realistic chance at going through, perhaps Group H is a close second. There is very little to separate Poland, Colombia and Senegal, while Japan falls a bit lower down the pecking order. One thing is for sure, though: this group will have plenty of brilliant goals, blinding pace and solid play as these four teams all have established goalscorers whom casual fans and hardcore supporters alike will recognize.

Whenever you have a group with Robert Lewandowski, Sadio Mane, James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and Shinji Kagawa, you know there’s going to be plenty of goals. Lewandowski was tied atop the world scoring charts during qualifying with 16 tallies, and he has been the leading man at Bayern Munich for quite some time—despite reports that he may be forcing his way out this summer. Lewandowski is an imposing forward who is equally as good with his head as he is with his feet and will be an absolute monster to defend in Group H. That, combined with Poland’s defense being headed by Borussia Dortmund’s Lukasz Piszczek makes Poland a likely favorite to win Group H.

That doesn’t mean you should sleep on Senegal or Colombia, both of which boast plenty of star power and have loads of goals in the squad along with center backs to counter their most daunting foes (Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly for Senegal; Tottenham's Davinson Sanchez, Barcelona's Yerry Mina for Colombia). Watching Mane bomb up and down the pitch for Senegal or watching James, Falcao and Juan Cuadrado impose their combined will on the other teams will be appointment viewing.

Match Schedule

Tuesday, June 19 (8 a.m. ET): Colombia vs. Japan

Tuesday, June 19 (11 a.m. ET): Poland vs. Senegal

Sunday, June 24 (11 a.m. ET): Japan vs. Senegal

Sunday, June 24 (2 p.m. ET): Poland vs. Colombia

Thursday, June 28 (10 a.m. ET): Japan vs. Poland

Thursday, June 28 (10 a.m. ET): Senegal vs. Colombia

Most Pivotal Match

This one is tricky because basically every match matters for each team but the match to tune into will likely be the final match of Group H play: Senegal-Colombia. These two teams will probably be battling for second place behind Poland and watching these two teams, who both boast incredible attacks and solid defenses, will be a must-watch in the group stage. Can Mane and his talented teammated break down Los Cafeteros, or will David Ospina and the Colombian defense hold firm while Kalidou Koulibaly tries to hold off the likes of Falcao and James?

The match will make for a fascinating watch and will could well hold a win-or-go-home aspect that should keep viewers glued to their screens for the full 90 minutes. Senegal pulled off an incredible run during its last–and coincidentally first–run in the World Cup in 2002 when the Lions reached the quarterfinals (captained by its current coach, Allou Cisse), and that storyline will likely be beat into the ground as the competition approaches. Can it pull off a similar run in 2018? Colombia might stand in the way of that goal.

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Potential Sleeper Team

Japan is likely the only team in this group that can be considered a sleeper. Its roster contains a bunch of squad players whose names you might recognize when glancing at a team sheet but who are beyond their prime years, especially compared to the other established superstars in the group. Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Maya Yoshida are all experienced players who have dealt with pressure at different parts of their career, but none has really made a true mark in international play. If Kagawa can shed his reputation of disappearing in big moments and Yoshida can stand tall in defense while Okazaki and Honda bring some goals to the squad, it could shock a couple teams. Japan may have the longest odds in this group, but it has the players to make things interesting.

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Players to Watch

Robert Lewandowski (Poland): Who else would you want to watch for a full 90 minutes than a man who has regularly led Germany’s greatest club team to success and has 106 goals in 126 league appearances for the Bavarian giants? Lewandowski will lead the Poland attack and have a hand in most of the goals his team scores. If he starts the tournament off hot against Senegal and can lead Poland into the knockout stage, there could be a golden boot in his future.

Sadio Mane (Senegal): For anyone who has watched Liverpool for the past couple seasons, you know what Mane is capable of. His unique combination of pace, strength and on-ball skill makes him an intoxicating watch in nearly any situation. Inject him into one of Africa’s fastest, most exciting attacking teams and you have a recipe for success. After a crushing loss in the UEFA Champions League final, expect him to be on a warpath during Senegal’s first game against Poland.

James Rodriguez (Colombia): After being relegated to the bench after his move to Real Madrid, James has shown some of the same flair and passion during his loan spell at Bayern Munich that made fans at the World Cup in 2014 fall in love with him. With a sweet left foot and a penchant to pull off the fantastic on the big stage, watch for him to put his stamp on this World Cup the same way he did in Brazil.

Maya Yoshida (Japan): Japan has three teams in its group that all have multiple potent attacking options, so Yoshida will likely be the most important player in the team. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense and if the Southampton center back can keep players like Mane and Lewandowski off the scoresheet, it will go a long way to getting Japan out of this group. Yoshida also offers a threat on set pieces that could come in handy for Japan.

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Prediction to go through

This is one of the most difficult groups to predict a winner, because you can make a convincing argument that three of these teams could win the group. With that being said, Poland will come out on top. The constant threat of Lewandowski matched with solid options at goalkeeper and defense puts the European side in prime position to win the group. Colombia will follow in second in a group that'll go down to the wire.