Four teams from four continents in Group H - Who does Michael Cox think will shine?
Group H is what the World Cup should be about: geographical spread combined with competitiveness. There are sides representing Europe, South America, Africa and Asia - and, with some bookmakers pricing the outsiders, Japan, as just 2/1 to qualify, this one is very much up for grabs.
The favourites for the group are Colombia, who proved arguably the most exciting side at the last World Cup, and have plenty of familiar names this time around. The major change has been in the centre of defence, where the youthful combination of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez allows them to keep a higher defensive line.
This is still a very structured side, however. 4-2-3-1 on paper, it’s more like 4-4-1-1 for long periods with the system entirely based around James Rodriguez getting space in the number 10 position. Rodriguez was the top goalscorer at the last World Cup, and although he endured a difficult time at Real Madrid, his form for Bayern Munich has been excellent and he’s capable of dominating games at this tournament to a greater extent than anyone, with the exception of Leo Messi. Rodriguez drops deep to overload the midfield and then sprints forward into goalscoring positions. It remains to be seen whether he exerts the influence of 2014, but he’ll make sure he’s involved.
Radamel Falcao is another who has returned to form and will lead the line after missing 2014, but there’s a sense he’s too focused upon goalscoring and doesn’t link well with teammates. Colombia should stretch the play on both flanks, with Juan Cuadrado offering the greatest threat from the right, while the two holding midfielders remain in position to guard against counters.
The weakness is David Ospina, who performed well in 2014 but made some absolutely incredible mistakes during qualification, and was somewhat fortunate this didn’t cost Colombia their place at the tournament.
Second-favourites are Poland, who boast arguably the tournament’s best number nine in Robert Lewandowski, but conceded far too many goals in qualification to suggest they’re likely to go on a decent run in qualification. 14 goals-against in 10 matches was, by a distance, the most of any European qualifier, and is somewhat surprising considering their fine defensive record at Euro 2016. The injury to Kamil Glik, their best centre-back - after a failed bicycle kick attempt in training - hardly helps the situation.
Adam Nawalka has the side formatted in a familiar manner to previous tournaments - two battling deep midfielders and two wide midfielders expected to charge up and down the line. Kamil Grosicki is the type of energetic counter-attacker who could work nicely against open opposition.
Nawalka’s main dilemma is whether to use a second striker, Arkadiusz Milik, just behind Lewandowski. But a 4-2-3-1 feels more likely with Piotr Zielinski at the top of midfield. Grzegorz Krychowiak will play deeper, and while he endured a difficult season at West Brom, he can dominate games with his power.
There’s too many question marks about Poland, though - the defensive problems, the formation question mark, and the dependence upon Lewandowski, who hasn’t been prolific at previous international tournaments. Poland are odds-on to qualify, which doesn’t seem a very inviting price.
Japan, meanwhile, find themselves in something of a state - having appointed coach Akira Nishino only two months ago, after Vahid Halilhodzic’s regime proved somewhat unpopular, and produced some unconvincing performances. As a result, there are several question marks about Japan’s tactics, and their precise level of ability.
As ever, Japan offer plenty of technical quality. Shinji Kagawa remains an outstanding playmaker and will play in his favoured number 10 position, with Keisuke Honda, who has scored at the last two World Cups, likely to play from the right flank. Japan can also still depend upon the brilliant Makoto Hasebe, a calm and controlled deep-lying midfielder who helps endure Japan dominate possession.
As in previous tournaments, though, Japan may struggle in the boxes. Upfront it’s a choice between Shinji Okazaki, who is hard-working but doesn’t score many against serious opposition, and Yuya Osako, more of a target man. Japan have a habit of playing some lovely passing combinations without actually converting these moves into goals.
There’s a danger, too, that they’ll be exposed on counter-attacks in a group featuring plenty of speedy wingers. A few of these Japanese players appear a couple of years past their best - even if they’re not yet ancient. Full-back Yuto Nagatomo, who was once outstanding for his national side, is a good example: he’s only 31 but already seems to lack the dynamism of his younger years. Japan look unusually solid in the middle, however, led by Maya Yoshida with Tomoaki Makino providing the physicality. There’s also a possibility the outstanding Hasebe will drop into the defence and turn Japan into a back three, which provides the type of tactical fluidity others in this group will lack.
The best value side in this highly competitive group, however, might be Senegal. Aliou Cisse has created a disciplined, organised and cohesive side who use possession efficiently and get men behind the ball quickly. It’s Senegal’s first World Cup appearance since Cisse captained them to the quarter-finals in 2002, and they might be able to demonstrate a similarly ruthless counter-attacking style here.
Senegal are physical rather than technical in the centre of the pitch, with Idrissa Gueye a good ball-winner, captain Cheickhou Kouyate capable of screening the defence and charging forward, and a slightly confusing choice between Badou Ndiaye, Alfred N’Diaye and Cheikh N’Doye to complete the midfield trio.
Defensively, Senegal have an outstanding centre-back in Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, although there’s a weakness alongside him, where Kara Mbodji is prone to unnecessary mistakes. The goalkeeping situation is also a worry: Abdoulaye Diallo can make poor decisions and complicates seemingly simple saves.
There’s plenty of quality going forward, even if Sadio Mane hasn’t quite replicated his Liverpool form at this level. Moussa Sow offers more height, with Mame Biram Diouf a willing runner and M’Baye Niang capable of brilliance and craziness in turn.
But the star could be Cisse, Senegal’s manner. A disciplinarian, a good tactician and highly respected within the squad, he guided Senegal to an unbeaten qualification campaign. There might be a lack of incision after long spells of possession, but Senegal could be outstanding on the break - and are good value to progress ahead of Japan and Poland, joining Colombia in the second round.