England break the curse in fiery affair

Jordan Henderson looked confident as he walked towards the penalty spot. He even juggled the ball as he was preparing to take England’s third kick of their decisive penalty shootout against Colombia. The shootout was evenly poised. Colombian captain Radamel Falcao had gone first, and made no mistake. His opposite number, English striker Harry Kane, scored his penalty with similar confidence. Juan Cuadrado, Marcus Rashford and Luis Muriel took the next three shots, and all of them scored. The pressure on each kick, especially each English one, was increasing. Henderson’s penalty was good, hit with power and precision to the right. Unfortunately for Henderson, Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina was ready. He made a brilliant save, and England seemed done. They had worked determinedly to break their penalty shootout jinx at major tournaments. They had prepared themselves mentally and physically for the dreaded tiebreaker that has so often proved England’s undoing. Now, it seemed that, despite their best efforts, they had lost on penalties again. Turin 1990, London 1996, Saint-Étienne 1998, Lisbon 2004, Gelsenkirchen 2006 and Kiev 2012, England’s previous penalty shootout defeats, were about to be joined by Moscow 2018.

It started brightly enough for England. They had most of the early play, and created some good chances. Kane came especially close to scoring when he got on the end of a dangerous Kieran Trippier cross, but he couldn’t quite put the tough header away and it landed on the roof of the net. Colombia began to settle, but their sole attacking threat was a couple of long shots from Juan Fernando Quintero. England had a few more chances, but they never really looked like scoring as the first half drew to a close. The first half did, however, set the tone for what was to come with a few heated incidents.

The first flashpoint involved Trippier and Falcao. The English right-back pushed into the Colombian striker from behind, the Colombian striker went down, and Colombia received a free-kick. Then the pair exchanged words as Trippier seemed to accuse Falcao of exaggerating the contact. It didn’t seem too unfair an accusation considering the incident, but Falcao shot to his feet immediately, determined to address this slight on his honour. A couple of minutes later, Harry Maguire and Cuadrado looked like they were about to come to blows. Had other players been in the vicinity, blows may well have ensued. There was an undercurrent of tension bubbling up, and it looked like things might just go crazy.

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Raheem Sterling (front) is fouled by Yerry Mina as they battle each other for the ball. There was plenty of physical play during the game, and it resulted in a contest that was often heated.

Then they did. A larger fracas broke out when Kane was brought down on the edge of the area, although none of it actually stemmed from the original foul. Instead, the trouble originated from the wall. Colombia arranged their wall effectively, before England decided to get involved in an attempt to disrupt Colombia’s defence of Trippier’s shot on goal. Amidst the chaos, Wílmar Barrios softly headbutted Henderson in the chest. Henderson went to ground, England remonstrated, the video assistant referee intervened, and eventually Barrios was fairly lucky to escape with a yellow card. All the jostling was a waste of time in the end, as Trippier didn’t even put his free-kick on target.

Mateus Uribe had the next penalty after Henderson’s miss. Colombia now held the upper hand, and all Uribe needed to do to consolidate that advantage was put his penalty past Jordan Pickford. For Pickford, it was do or die. He needed to save the kick, or England would almost certainly be consigned to another penalty shootout defeat. Uribe went high, aiming for the top corner. It was impossible to save. It was also off target, hitting the underside of the bar and bouncing out. England were suddenly back in it. Trippier slammed his penalty home. Scores were level.

There was another minor incident as the increasingly spiteful half drew to a close, as Raheem Sterling seemingly sent Yerry Mina crashing to the turf in an off-the-ball coming together. It turned out that Sterling had done nothing of the sort, and Mina had just taken a massive dive before angrily remonstrating with his supposed assailant. The Henderson-Barrios incident hadn’t yet cooled temperatures, and American referee Mark Geiger was desperately fighting to keep the game under control.

Then, shortly after half time, Colombia won a penalty and sparked the biggest incident of the match. It wasn’t surprising. As the English prepared to take a corner, four English attackers – and Colombian Carlos Sánchez – stood in an orderly line awaiting the delivery. Sánchez wasn’t really meant to be there, and England didn’t really seem to want him around, but he wasn’t willing to let Kane out of his sight. Or, more importantly, he wasn’t willing to let Kane out of his grasp. Referee Geiger gave the customary talk on holding in the box, but Sánchez clearly paid little attention. The ball was eventually put into the area, Sánchez attempted to block Kane from running at the ball, and eventually Kane went crashing to the turf as Sánchez seemingly attempted to mount him. Sánchez’s actions wouldn’t have been out of place at a rodeo, and Geiger didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot. England were happy with the call. Colombia were incensed.

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Harry Kane celebrates after putting England ahead with a well-taken penalty. The lead lasted until the 93rd minute of the match.

They remonstrated very vocally with Geiger, forcing a delay in the game as they made their feelings clear. Sánchez and Falcao led the protests, but there were consistently four or five Colombians surrounding Geiger and demanding that the egregious injustice they had just suffered be rectified. Eventually, the kick was taken, and scored quite easily by Kane. England had the lead, and Colombia didn’t seem ready to get it back just yet. They were just angry about how the game had panned out, and the result was chaos.

Falcao clashed with John Stones immediately after the goal. Then he accused Maguire (not unfairly) of sharp practice as the big centre-back went to ground in the box, and found himself booked for his slightly over-zealous and threatening protests. Geiger soon decided that when in doubt, brandishing the yellow card was the best option. Carlos Bacca came on and clattered into the back of Stones, receiving a yellow card as a result. Stones wasn’t best pleased, and he rejected Bacca’s apologetic handshake. Bacca just looked slightly sad. Jesse Lingard clipped Carlos Sánchez’s heels rather unnecessarily. He too received a complementary caution. It was beginning to seem like it would take a miracle for both sides to finish the game with their full complement of players.

Bacca was entrusted with taking the crucial fifth penalty for Colombia. The shootout had reached the point where the slightest slip, or one moment of brilliance from either keeper, would almost certainly decide the game. All Bacca had to do was score. He couldn’t. Pickford flung himself the right way, and almost flung himself too far. The ball was above him, but he raised his left arm, batted the ball away and left England on the verge of the unthinkable: a win in the knockout stage on penalties. Could it really happen? Eric Dier stepped up to take the kick that could seal it.

A rare moment of footballing action saw Lingard attempt to find Kane in the centre after slipping into the box with a nice run. It was blocked, and the resultant corner saw Maguire head the ball onto the roof of the net. Then Kyle Walker gave Colombia their best chance of the game. The English centre-back was dispossessed in a very dangerous area and England’s defence was outnumbered. Cuadrado missed the target. Suddenly, with the game on the line, Colombia seemed to decide that fighting the English wasn’t really the answer, and seemingly realised that Cuadrado’s missed chance, and Quintero’s pair of long shots, was the sum total of their attacking efforts. They needed to do better, and they lifted.

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Carlos Bacca (right) is distraught after having his penalty saved by Jordan Pickford. Pickford’s stop allowed England to win the match on penalties.

Out of nowhere, Pickford was required to make a stunning save to deal with Uribe’s ridiculously ambitious attempt from a very long way out. He managed to tip the ball away for a corner, one of Colombia’s first of the night. The clock had passed 90 minutes, and the match was into added time. The corner was Colombia’s last throw of the dice. It was swung in, and Mina rose to meet it. Mina had scored from corners in Colombia’s previous two matches, and now he found space against Maguire in the box. He headed it into the ground, hard, and it bounced towards goal. Trippier was too short to get his head to the bouncing ball and keep it from crossing the goal line. Pickford was too far away to make a last-ditch save. The game was going to extra time, and penalties were on the agenda.

There were a few chances in extra time, but neither side was able to break the deadlock. The game was to be decided on penalty kicks. This English side had been hailed as the new generation of stars who could make their own history. Now, that reputation was at a crossroads. England could overcome the scars of the past, and continue to forge ahead into the quarter-finals and, quite possibly, beyond. Alternatively, they could lose. It was hard to know what a loss would do. Would it prove that this English side, for all the hype surrounding the fresh and exciting squad, couldn’t overcome the historical burdens carried into every tournament? Would it suggest that England’s supposed renaissance under Gareth Southgate was just a false dawn, driven by the media excitement accompanying their success? It wasn’t clear.

Thankfully for England, those questions didn’t need to be asked. Dier was calm as he slotted his penalty into the bottom corner, and England celebrated madly as they made their way into the quarter-finals. It was fitting that Southgate, on the losing side in the shootouts of 96 and 98, was the man in charge of the team as they finally overcame their demons. Maybe England are a newly resurgent force, although the jury could still be out. After all, their next game is against Sweden, and they have a horrible record against the Swedes. It seems the perfect opportunity to create some new history.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Colombia 1 (Mina 90+3)
England 1 (Kane 57 pen) (a.e.t, England won 4-3 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)
Colombia (4-3-2-1): Ospina – Arias (Zapata 116), Mina, D Sánchez, Mojica; Barrios, C Sánchez (Uribe 79), Lerma (Bacca 61); Cuadrado, Quintero (Muriel 88); Falcao.
England (3-5-2):
Pickford – Walker (Rashford 113), Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Dier 81), Henderson, Lingard, Young (Rose 102); Sterling (Vardy 88), Kane.

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England’s players pile on top of Jordan Pickford after their penalty shootout victory. After losing six of their seven previous penalty shootouts at major tournaments, including three World Cup shootouts, the victory was a huge weight off England’s shoulders.

Top 5
1. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier has been brilliant all tournament, and he delivered another excellent performance to send England through to the last eight. He worked hard going forward and tracking back, and his crosses from the right wing were very dangerous. His set piece delivery was on song once again, and it caused plenty of problems.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane scored England’s only goal, and his sixth of the tournament, from the penalty spot, and his impact stretched beyond that one moment. He made plenty of dangerous runs, and fought through a number of fouls as he desperately attempted to drive England forward. He appears to be England’s greatest hope of an even deeper run into the tournament.
3. Johan Mojica (Colombia)
Mojica was the only Colombian who consistently threatened the English as he used his pace and crossing ability to good effect. He had little support on the left and was often forced to go it alone, but he always worked hard and he very nearly breached the English defence on a few occasions.
4. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was his usual energetic self, making penetrating runs in midfield and establishing himself as England’s main second half threat with his work on the counter-attack. He came close to scoring or assisting an English goal on a few occasions, and put Colombia under the pump.
5. Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)
Cuadrado worked hard to get into some decent attacking positions, and he made some decent forays forward. He collected the assist for Colombia’s late equaliser, and he looked more likely than most of his teammates to make something happen.

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Mina – and fair play points – break Senegalese hearts

Juan Fernando Quintero swung the corner into the box, and delivered it into a dangerous area. Colombia were desperately fighting for a goal to keep themselves in the World Cup, against a Senegalese defence who knew that a draw would be enough and a loss would be catastrophic. Now, deep into the second half, Colombia had a chance. Quintero’s corner found Yerry Mina, who had scored the opening goal in their previous match against Poland. The centre-back rose to meet the ball, beating out any Senegalese defender in the vicinity in the process, and slammed the ball goalward, with Khadim N’Diaye unable to stop the ball as it slammed into the roof of the net. The goal consigned Senegal to elimination, with the Lions of Teranga falling behind Japan on the basis of fair play points. In the end, two yellow cards over the course of three games was the difference between success and a heartbreaking elimination. Senegal fought valiantly, and their elimination will be hard to stomach.

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Colombia’s players celebrate after Yerry Mina’s winning goal. The goal knocked Senegal out of the World Cup by the finest of margins.

The game started openly, but neither team really seemed to have any control over what was happening as the ball shot around the field quickly and somewhat unpredictably with almost no stoppages. Quintero forced a fine save from N’Diaye with a well-placed free-kick, but there were few other chances early. Then Senegal won a penalty – or so they thought. Sadio Mané was brought down in the box, slipping in behind the defence after a nice passing move and ending up on the deck after Dávinson Sánchez’s sliding challenge from behind. Milorad Mažić pointed to the spot, and Colombia protested vehemently. Then the video assistant referee stepped in. Mažić moved towards the tiny monitor between the benches, had a good look, and eventually determined that the tackle was fair, and that Dávinson had just pulled off one of the best tackles of the tournament.

Colombia settled back in after their near-miss, and the game went back to its earlier pattern. With neither team really creating anything, there was little action for the rest of the half, with Senegal looking slightly more fluent going forward but not dominating by any means. About the most interesting incident was the puzzling substitution of Colombian star James Rodríguez, who had no impact for the first half hour and was replaced, presumably injured, without leaving a mark. By half time, nobody had looked like finding the back of the net, with Senegal lacking the finishing touch in the final third and Colombia lacking any sort of attacking presence against Senegal’s well-organised defence.

The second half took on a similar rhythm to the first, with Colombia becoming slightly more desperate. After a fairly lengthy period of inaction, Colombia started to create some chances, driven by the tireless work of Luis Muriel. Muriel had come on for James, and he threatened to score with a well-hit shot from the edge of the area. The ball was deflected away for a corner, and Radamel Falcao proceeded to send a header flying just over the bar. Muriel got involved again a few minutes later, forcing N’Diaye to clean up in the box and getting himself taken out as a result, and N’Diaye had more work to do when Salif Sané’s muffed clearance travelled straight towards his goal. Then Mina scored his fateful goal, and Senegal’s future in the tournament was cast into serious doubt.

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Sadio Mané (left) battles for the ball with Dávinson Sánchez. Mané fought hard, but his efforts weren’t quite enough to get Senegal over the line.

Their qualification for the next round now in jeopardy, Senegal came out swinging. M’Baye Niang fired a shot at Ospina’s goal, and the Colombian goalkeeper did well to parry it away. Ospina was tested again from the resulting corner, but Mina managed to get his head on the ball and it was a relatively easy claim for the keeper. They never got so close again. They tried, but they just couldn’t breach the disciplined Colombian defence. They tried, but their World Cup campaign still ended in devastating circumstances.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Senegal 0
Colombia 1 (Mina 74)
Referee: Milorad Mažić (Srb)
Senegal (4-4-2): K N’Diaye – Gassama, Sané, Koulibaly, Sabaly (Wagué 74); Sarr, Kouyaté, Gueye, Mané; Keita Baldé (Konaté 80), Niang (Sakho 86).
Colombia (4-2-3-1): Ospina – Arias, Mina, D Sánchez, Mojica; C Sánchez, Uribe (Lerma 83); Cuadrado, Quintero, Rodríguez (Muriel 31); Falcao (Borja 89).

Top 5
1. Luis Muriel (Colombia)
Muriel came on for James after the first half hour, and had a real impact on Colombia’s fortunes. He never gave up on the ball, and used his pace to good effect as he hunted down the Senegalese defenders and put them under pressure they didn’t expect. His energy gave Colombia the momentum they needed to go ahead.
2. Idrissa Gueye (Senegal)
Gueye did a very important job for Senegal in the centre of the park, and he had a huge impact defensively with his ability to win duels one-on-one. He won the ball back in crucial areas, and his solidity in possession kick-started a few Senegalese attacks.
3. Yerry Mina (Colombia)
Mina played a key role in the heart of the Colombian defence, but it was his goal-scoring exploits which sent Colombia through and set him apart. He now has two goals in two World Cup games thanks to his proficiency in the air, and his defensive work has added some much-needed stability to the Colombian back four.
4. Sadio Mané (Senegal)
Mané played a more central role in the Senegalese attack than he did in the first two games, and he found himself on the ball in more dangerous spots as a result. He came very close to winning a penalty, and he was always threatening Colombia with his pace and skill.
5. Carlos Sánchez (Colombia)
Sánchez came back into the team after being suspended for an ill-advised handball in the box, and immediately showed his value to the Colombian midfield. He was heavily involved as he tried to thwart Senegal’s dynamic attackers, and he was more than willing to get stuck in as he worked to shield the defence.

Scintillating Colombia demolish dispirited Poland

Robert Lewandowski collected the ball in space just outside the area, and unleashed a shot with his right foot. Unlike most of his efforts in the previous 88 minutes, this was perfect. Poland’s star striker sent the ball fizzing towards goal, with only an injured David Ospina standing in his way. A goal wouldn’t win Poland the match, or even save them from the recriminations sure to follow after a meek surrender to a very dangerous Colombian team. It would, however, give them, and Lewandowski, something to take from a thoroughly disheartening performance. Ospina leapt to make the save, defying his sore leg to keep Poland’s captain at bay, the score remained at 3-0, and Poland didn’t even get their consolation goal. It was just one of those days.

A draw between Senegal and Japan meant the loser of this clash would be eliminated, and both sides came out determined to come away with the three points. The result was plenty of physical play and a steady procession of injury breaks in the first 10 minutes, with Johan Mojica, Michał Pazdan, Yerry Mina and Ospina going down with various ailments. The constant interruptions meant neither side was able to get much continuous attacking play going, and there were few clear opportunities in the game’s early stages. Colombia began to build into play a bit better as the game progressed, getting their attacking players involved more regularly. Juan Cuadrado looked particularly dangerous, showing his skills when he beat Maciej Rybus and Grzegorz Krychowiak to storm into the box. He couldn’t quite turn it into something more. The threat was there, however, and shortly afterwards they scored with the only shot on target of the match.

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Robert Lewandowski (in white) attempts to beat a swarm of Colombian defenders. Lewandowski had little impact on the match, with Colombia putting plenty of pressure on him every time he received the ball.

The goal came from a brilliant combination between Colombia’s talented triumvirate of playmakers, whose clever corner routine caught the Polish defence out. Cuadrado won the corner, finding space on the right, crossing the ball into an opponent and watching as it rolled over the line. James Rodríguez, back in the starting line-up after recovering from injury, took the corner and passed to Cuadrado, who found Juan Fernando Quintero in space outside the box. Quintero shaped to shoot from range, the Polish defence took the bait and he rolled a look-away pass to James, now completely unoccupied. James’ first-time cross was perfect, landing on the head of Mina just inside the six-yard-box. It was a perfectly timed and executed move, and it was impossible for the centre-back to miss from such close range.

Poland needed to score in the second half, but nothing was working for them. Whenever they got the ball, Colombia swarmed them, depriving them of the time they needed to make things happen. Lewandowski had been shut down all game, and it didn’t get any better as Colombia denied him service with their excellent pressing game. Poland’s most dangerous moments came on the few occasions where Colombia conceded a throw-in in their defensive third and Łukasz Piszczek displayed impressive range on his heaves into the area. As impressive as Piszczek’s throws were, they ultimately came to nothing and the fact that they were Poland’s best chance of scoring was an indictment on their attacking players. Then Colombia scored twice in quick succession, and put the game to bed.

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Radamel Falcao celebrates after scoring Colombia’s second goal. The goal was 32-year-old Falcao’s first at a World Cup, after the Colombian captain missed the 2014 edition with a knee injury.

The second goal came on the break, with Quintero finding the ball in space and threading a perfect ball through the Polish defence. Radamel Falcao got on the end of it, collecting the ball past the defence with just Wojciech Szczęsny to beat. He did it comfortably, rolling it past the helpless goalkeeper into the bottom corner. Falcao’s long-awaited first World Cup goal (he missed the last tournament with injury) all but sealed the win for Colombia, and it triggered raucous celebrations within the large Colombian sections of the crowd. Then they got the third to leave Poland with no chance of recovery. It came on the break, with Cuadrado making a dangerous run through the centre and latching onto a long ball from James. The Polish defence gave chase, but they were never going to catch him, and Szczęsny couldn’t do a thing as Cuadrado slotted the ball coolly into the bottom corner.

Poland had most of the attacking play in the meaningless final stages of a game that had already been decided, but there was a disheartened look about their play and they never seriously looked like reducing the deficit. Their campaign started full of excitement, with a consistent core of quality players. With one game to spare, they’re already eliminated and now face a struggle to salvage something from the smouldering wreck that was their World Cup aspirations. For Colombia, the World Cup dream is alive and kicking, and a fascinating match-up with Senegal awaits. All their stars were firing, and their clinical demolition of the Polish should stand them in good stead for the rest of the tournament.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Poland 0
Colombia 3 (Mina 40, Falcao 70, Cuadrado 75)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Poland (3-4-3): Szczęsny – Piszczek, Bednarek, Pazdan (Glik 80); Bereszyński (Teodorczyk 72), Krychowiak, Góralski, Rybus; Zieliński, Lewandowski, Kownacki (Grosicki 57).
Colombia (4-2-3-1): Ospina – Arias, D Sánchez, Mina, Mojica; Aguilar (Uribe 32), Barrios; Cuadrado, Quintero (Lerma 73), Rodríguez; Falcao (Bacca 78).

Top 5
1. Juan Cuadrado (Colombia)
Cuadrado was in brilliant touch, making raids down the right-wing and giving Poland plenty of nervous moments when he got free on the break. He found a goal late when he received the ball in behind the defence, and his pace, skill and vision made him a very potent weapon for Colombia.
2. Juan Fernando Quintero (Colombia)
Quintero played plenty of beautiful passes in behind the Polish defence, and he managed to slip the ball through their back three with almost contemptuous ease. His look-away pass to James caught the Polish defence off guard, and apart from being a stunning moment of skill it also played a key role in the first goal. He seems to have come to the World Cup in very ominous form.
3. Radamel Falcao (Colombia)
Falcao had to wait a long time for his World Cup debut, and after the pain of missing out four years ago he finally managed his first World Cup goal with a classy one-on-one finish. He battled hard in the air all day, and combined well with the creative trio of James, Cuadrado and Quintero to make the Colombian attack tick.
4. James Rodríguez (Colombia)
James wasn’t necessarily at his absolute best, but he still managed to find two assists with some nice passes. His combination with Quintero and Cuadrado was very dangerous, and his work drifting across the field caused plenty of issues for the Colombians. If he hits his best form Colombia will be a dangerous opponent.
5. Jan Bednarek (Poland)
Bednarek had a tough job at the heart of the Polish defence, but he made some good challenges and looked more assured than many of his teammates. At the age of just 22, Bednarek could be an excellent prospect and he could be one of the few positives Poland take from an otherwise disastrous campaign.

Ten-man Colombia falter against clinical Japan

Before this game, no Asian team had taken the scalp of a South American one in the World Cup. The clash between a powerful looking Colombian side, albeit without injured star James Rodríguez, and a Japanese side coming off a tumultuous, coach-killing build-up to the tournament, seemed unlikely to change that. In the World Cup, however, nothing is impossible, and Akira Nishino’s men proved it with a clinical second half performance which upset a Colombian side reduced to 10 men and set the cat amongst the pigeons in a volatile Group H mix.

The game got off to a bizarre false start, with the referee mistakenly lining the teams up in the wrong halves. After both teams underwent the slightly farcical process of switching sides before kick-off, things couldn’t have commenced any worse for the Colombians. Dávinson Sánchez was turned by Yūya Ōsako and found himself one-on-one with David Ospina, who made the save but couldn’t stop Shinji Kagawa from collecting the rebound and streaming towards a now exposed goal. Carlos Sánchez played goalkeeper and blocked a certain goal with his arm, and he received his marching orders before Kagawa drilled it home from the spot. After just over five minutes, Colombia found themselves one goal down, without their star player and with their second-most experienced player having just received the second-fastest red card in World Cup history. It wasn’t an ideal situation.

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Carlos Sánchez (on ground) is shown the red card by referee Damir Skomina (in red). Sánchez’s send-off was the second-fastest in World Cup history, and it derailed Colombia’s plans.

It couldn’t really get any worse, and the Colombians responded to the shock perfectly. They nearly recouped the deficit just five minutes later, with Radamel Falcao latching onto a free-kick but failing to divert it past Eiji Kawashima. Unfortunately for them, Falcao’s near miss didn’t mark the beginning of any sustained attack on the Japanese goal. Instead, what followed was a fairly dull period of play, with very little goalmouth action for either team but Colombia adjusting well to the loss of their key defensive midfielder.

Then, after building a little bit of pressure with a few dangerous attacks, the Colombians levelled. Falcao won a questionable free-kick on the edge of the box, and Juan Fernando Quintero decided to attempt a shot under the wall. It worked. The four men in the Japanese wall jumped as high as they could in an attempt to block the kick, and the ball rolled straight underneath their feet. Kawashima just didn’t seem to be ready for the unexpected move, and the ball had crossed the line before he managed to reach it. With the score at 1-1 going into the break, things weren’t tracking well for a Japanese side who had completely failed to press home their numerical advantage.

Then, after starting the second half with more a more aggressive approach, Japan began to turn things around. Ōsako got involved, turning Dávinson just as easily as he had in the opening minutes and forcing Ospina into another tough save. The Colombian keeper needed to pull off an even better stop a few minutes later when Ōsako found Takashi Inui in space and the left winger curled in a beautiful shot from just inside the box. Maya Yoshida’s slightly off target header and Hiroki Sakai’s poorly-directed shot added to Japan’s list of second half chances, and the Colombians found themselves under a bit of pressure. Then they went behind once more.

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Yūya Ōsako celebrates after scoring the goal which sealed Japan’s upset win over Colombia. Ōsako had a huge impact up front, playing a hand in both goals and creating plenty of other chances.

It was Ōsako who scored the goal, but Keisuke Honda who made the difference. Introduced for Kagawa, he added a new energy to Japan’s attacking play, and they had a great chance almost immediately after he entered. A quick piece of build-up play allowed the powerful Ōsako to hold the ball up inside the box, with Dávinson’s desperate block from underneath the Japanese striker the only thing preventing Sakai from scoring. No such intervention could save them from Honda’s resultant corner, which picked out Ōsako with pinpoint accuracy and was headed unstoppably into the post and into the back of the net.

Colombia reacted with plenty of aggression. James, brought on despite his injury, found himself in a great position, but Ōsako’s desperate block prevented Colombia’s star man from finding the back of the net. Another block, from Genki Haraguchi, stopped a potentially dangerous corner from developing into something more worrisome. Almost immediately afterwards, Johan Mojica’s dangerous cross fizzled out, falling into the lap of a grateful Kawashima. Colombia looked ready to fight for the leveller, and Japan looked in for a protracted period of desperate defending. They weren’t. Down a man from the word go, Colombia seemed spent as Japan found plenty of free passes and monopolised possession. They were desperate, but desperation wasn’t enough as their tired team limped over the finish line. For Japan, the result is an unexpected boost to their seemingly slim hopes of progression. For Colombia, it could prove to be a fatal blow to their chances of going further into this tournament.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Colombia 1 (Quintero 39)
Japan 2 (Kagawa 6 pen, Ōsako 73)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Colombia (4-2-3-1): Ospina – Arias, D Sánchez, Murillo, Mojica; C Sánchez, Lerma; Cuadrado (Barrios 31), Quintero (Rodríguez 59), Izquierdo (Bacca 70); Falcao.
Sent-off: C Sánchez 3.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi 80); Haraguchi, Kagawa (Honda 70), Inui; Ōsako (Okazaki 85).

Top 5
1. Yūya Ōsako (Japan)
Ōsako was a force to be reckoned with in the Japanese attack, continually upstaging Sánchez and playing a massive hand in Japan’s upset victory. His strength on the ball allowed him to retain possession in attack, and his distribution was excellent. The winning goal was a fitting reward for his efforts.
2. José Fernando Quintero (Colombia)
Quintero was brought in to replace the injured James, and although he was subbed off relatively early in the match, he left a big mark. His set piece delivery was brilliant, and he capped off Colombia’s first half recovery with a canny free-kick goal. He could definitely spring a surprise or two.
3. Gaku Shibasaki (Japan)
Shibasaki was all action in the centre of the park, shuffling forward with seemingly boundless energy and getting better as the match progressed. His second half display was particularly significant, and his control of the ball in the attacking third allowed Japan’s play to flourish.
4. Hiroki Sakai (Japan)
Sakai worked very hard on the right flank all day, and was another player whose influence grew as the match progressed. He had a few chances as he started to find space on the overlap, and against tired Colombian opponents he became a potent attacking force for the Japanese.
5. Keisuke Honda (Japan)
Japan were in control of the game when Honda replaced Kagawa in the 70th minute, but the introduction of the veteran attacking midfielder was the change they needed to turn that into a winning goal. His cross to assist Ōsako’s goal was perfect, and the impact he had on the team suggests he may get a chance to start the next match.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group H

Group H

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Poland (8), Senegal (27), Colombia (16), Japan (61)
Fixtures:
Colombia vs Japan, Mordovia Arena, Saransk
Poland vs Senegal, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Japan vs Senegal, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg
Poland vs Colombia, Kazan Arena, Kazan
Japan vs Poland, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
Senegal vs Colombia, Cosmos Arena, Samara

Poland

Head Coach: Adam Nawałka
Captain: Robert Lewandowski
Previous Appearances: 7 (1938, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 2002, 2006)
Best Finish: Third Place (1974, 1982)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group E
Qualification Top Scorer: Robert Lewandowski (16)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Wojciech Szczęsny (Juventus), 12. Bartosz Białkowski (Ipswich Town), 22. Łukasz Fabiański (Swansea City).
Defenders: 2. Michał Pazdan (Legia Warsaw), 3. Artur Jędrzejczyk (Legia Warsaw), 4. Thiago Cionek (SPAL), 5. Jan Bednarek (Southampton), 13. Maciej Rybus (Lokomotiv Moscow), 15. Kamil Glik (Monaco), 18. Bartosz Bereszyński (Sampdoria), 20. Łukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund).
Midfielders: 6. Jacek Góralski (Ludogorets Razgrad), 8. Karol Linetty (Sampdoria), 10. Grzegorz Krychowiak (West Bromwich Albion), 11. Kamil Grosicki (Hull City), 16. Jakub Błaszczykowski (Wolfsburg), 17. Sławomir Peszko (Lechia Gdańsk), 19. Piotr Zieliński (Napoli), 21. Rafał Kurzawa (Górnik Zabrze).
Forwards: 7. Arkadiusz Milik (Napoli), 9. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), 14. Łukasz Teodorczyk (Anderlecht), 23. David Kownacki (Sampdoria).

Poland made it through to Russia easily, overcoming a slightly shaky start to breeze through courtesy of Robert Lewandowski. The captain scored 16 goals in qualifying, the most ever scored in European qualification, and his quality as a goal-scorer will serve Poland well at the World Cup. Lewandowski should be fresher than he was during a disappointing Euro 2016, and in conjunction with Arkadiusz Milik he will ensure the Polish are not short on goals. Elsewhere, Grzegorz Krychowiak is a solid player in the middle, and he will form a strong trio with rising stars Piotr Zieliński and Karol Linetty. Wingers Kamil Grosicki and Jakub Błaszczykowski are both very dangerous playmakers, while full-backs Łukasz Piszczek and Maciej Rybus can be influential going forward. Their defence is solid, with Kamil Glik and Michał Pazdan forming a strong central defensive pairing and Wojciech Szczęsny providing quality and solidity. Poland have depth in every position, and they have a well-rounded team that could make a very deep run into this tournament.

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Robert Lewandowski celebrates after scoring a qualifying goal against Montenegro. Lewandowski scored 16 times on the way to the World Cup, a record for a single European qualifying campaign.

If their key players stand up, Poland have built a spine around Lewandowski that can elevate them to the quarter-finals and beyond. When those players don’t function, however, too much of that burden may fall on the shoulders of the main goal-scorer, who is coming off another busy season as Bayern Munich’s main man. His efforts with Bayern impacted his performance at Euro 2016, and with several players coming off poor individual seasons the Polish may not be able to afford a similar drop in their captain’s standards. Krychowiak and Grosicki have gone through patchy years with their respective clubs, and Błaszczykowski is coming off a long injury lay-off. If these players can’t stand up, Poland will struggle to match up in a tough group. Their defence only kept two clean sheets in qualifying, and the dynamism of their opponents in Russia could leave them vulnerable. They have a consistent team that knows how to win, but they’re not spectacular and they can’t go all the way on talent alone.

Star Player: Robert Lewandowski

Lewandowski is Poland’s main source of goals, and they will need him to be at his best in Russia. His exploits for Bayern Munich have earned him a reputation as one of the world’s best strikers, and he has the ability to break down defences with skill, smarts, strength and speed. He has very few weaknesses as a goal-scorer, and if he is ready to go he will make a big impact.

Key Player: Kamil Glik

Glik is the undisputed leader of Poland’s defence. He is strong and very good in the air, and he has plenty of top-level experience. His combination with Pazdan was a key reason for Poland’s stellar defensive record at Euro 2016, and he is good enough to keep the team afloat even if they’re not playing at their peak. Poland will be hoping he can be as dependable as ever in Russia.

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Kamil Glik (left) battles for the ball during Poland’s Euro 2016 clash with Germany. Glik is the leader of the Polish defence, and will play a big role for them at the World Cup.

One to watch: Karol Linetty

Since his move to Serie A in 2016, Linetty has established himself as a talented young midfielder who can give his side a boost in both attack and defence. He has worked his way into Poland’s starting line-up in the last couple of years, and he could be a massive boost to the Polish midfield in Russia. Alongside quality midfield players in Krychowiak and Zieliński, Linetty can make his mark.

Verdict

Poland are a well-rounded side who can take it up to anyone in world football. They could challenge for the title, but they could also exit early in a tough and unpredictable group. The former’s probably more likely.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Szczęsny; Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Rybus; Krychowiak, Linetty; Błaszczykowski, Zieliński, Grosicki; Lewandowski.

Senegal

Head Coach: Aliou Cissé
Captain: Cheikhou Kouyaté
Previous Appearances: 1 (2002)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2002)
Qualified: CAF, 1st Group D
Qualification Top Scorer: Mame Biram Diouf, Sadio Mané, Cheikh N’Doye, Diafra Sakho (2)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), 16. Khadim N’Diaye (Horoya), 23. Alfred Gomis (SPAL).
Defenders: 2. Saliou Ciss (Valenciennes), 3. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), 4. Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht), 6. Salif Sané (Hannover), 12. Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), 21. Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor), 22. Moussa Wagué (Eupen).
Midfielders: 5. Idrissa Gueye (Everton), 8. Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham United), 11. Cheikh N’Doye (Birmingham City), 13. Alfred N’Diaye (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 17. Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City).
Forwards: 7. Moussa Sow (Bursaspor), 9. Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City), 10. Sadio Mané (Liverpool), 14. Moussa Konaté (Amiens), 15. Diafra Sakho (Rennes), 18. Ismaïla Sarr (Rennes), 19. M’Baye Niang (Torino), 20. Keita Baldé (Monaco).

Last time they were at the World Cup the Senegalese shocked everyone by beating France and making it to the quarter-finals. This side could be better. The Lions of Teranga are flush with attacking talent, led by lightning-fast Liverpool star Sadio Mané. Mané is supported by plenty of quality options, like pacey wingers Keita Baldé, M’Baye Niang and Ismaïla Sarr and dangerous strikers Diafra Sakho, Moussa Sow, Mame Biram Diouf and Moussa Konaté. Perhaps more ominously, Senegal’s key strength doesn’t lie with their abundance of attacking options. Instead, it is a solid midfield and defence which sets them apart, with players from Europe’s best clubs forming a strong spine. Cheikhou Kouyaté and Idrissa Gueye are a pair of Premier League regulars who provide consistency in the middle of the park, and they will be well supported by Alfred N’Diaye, Badou Ndiaye and Cheikh N’Doye. Centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is one of Europe’s most coveted players, and Kara Mbodji’s recovery from injury is another positive. They are a quality team, and their solidity will allow their dynamic attack to thrive.

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Kalidou Koulibaly controls the ball during a friendly match against Nigeria. Koulibaly is one of the best defenders in the world, and his presence is a big boost for the Lions of Teranga.

The problem will be getting that attack to thrive. Coach Aliou Cissé has been criticised for his tactics, which are perceived by many fans as overly defensive. Their qualifying efforts were impressive, but their attack never quite performed to its full potential (they only managed to score two goals in a game once, against Madagascar). Senegal scored enough goals to qualify in the end, but with so much talent leading the line their underwhelming qualifying returns mark a concerning trend. If they want to progress from a tough group, their potentially devastating attack will need to find some form. There could be an issue in goal, with number one keeper Abdoulaye Diallo currently serving as the back-up at French club Rennes and coming into the tournament after making just three league appearances this season. Senegal have some players in Europe’s top clubs, but there is a large gap between their performance and that of other players in the side. If the Lions of Teranga want to progress, their second-tier players will need to step up.

Star Player: Sadio Mané

Mané is quick, skilled and knows how to get himself into good positions, and he will be Senegal’s biggest hope of a successful result in Russia. His combination with Mohamed Salah worked wonders for Liverpool this season, due in no small part to his ability to put defenders under pressure. He is one of the world’s most dangerous attackers, and he will make opposing defenders very nervous.

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Sadio Mané attempts to maintain possession during a qualifier against South Africa. Mané is Senegal’s best player, and his pace and skill will make him an exceptionally dangerous opponent in Russia.

Key Player: Idrissa Gueye

Gueye is Senegal’s key player in the middle of the park, and he has developed into a defensive midfielder who can effectively cut off passes and stop opposing attacks. He works well with Kouyaté to form a solid screen for the defence, and he is capable of going forward and lending his weight to the attack with the occasional goal. He is a complete defensive player, and he will play a big role in Russia.

One to watch: Keita Baldé

Baldé has all the qualities required to make an impact at this World Cup: he has plenty of pace, and he knows how to find the back of the net. He has gone from strength to strength since joining Lazio in 2012, and his first season with Monaco was a success. He can provide an extra spark to any team when he’s on his game, and if he can pair up effectively with Mané the results could be spectacular.

Verdict

The Lions of Teranga have built a solid base around a side already laden with attacking talent. If that talent is unleashed in Russia, the results could be incredible. If not, the Senegalese will struggle in a tough group.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Diallo; Gassama, Mbodji, Koulibaly, Sabaly; Kouyaté, Gueye; Sarr, Mané, Niang; Sakho.

Colombia

Head Coach: José Pékerman
Captain: Radamel Falcao
Previous Appearances: 5 (1962, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2014)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 4th
Qualification Top Scorer: James Rodríguez (6)eHe

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. David Ospina (Arsenal), 12. Camilo Vargas (Deportivo Cali), 22. José Fernando Cuadrado (Once Caldas).
Defenders: 2. Cristián Zapata (Milan), 3. Óscar Murillo (Pachuca), 4. Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), 13. Yerry Mina (Barcelona), 17. Johan Mojica (Girona), 18. Farid Díaz (Olimpia), 23. Dávinson Sánchez (Tottenham Hotspur).
Midfielders: 5. Wílmar Barrios (Boca Juniors), 6. Carlos Sánchez (Espanyol), 8. Abel Aguilar (Deportivo Cali), 10. James Rodríguez (Bayern Munich), 11. Juan Cuadrado (Juventus), 15. Mateus Uribe (América), 16. Jefferson Lerma (Levante), 20. Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate).
Forwards: 7. Carlos Bacca (Villarreal), 9. Radamel Falcao (Monaco), 14. Luis Muriel (Sevilla), 19. Miguel Borja (Palmeiras), 21. José Izquierdo (Brighton and Hove Albion).

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Radamel Falcao celebrates after scoring against Brazil in qualifying. Falcao missed the last World Cup with a knee injury, and he will be hoping to make an impact this time around.

Colombia’s journey to their second consecutive World Cup wasn’t too easy, and it took a final day draw with Peru to seal their spot in the final tournament. Their qualifying struggles are now over, however, and in Russia they could make an impact with their dangerous attack. Radamel Falcao will finally get his chance on football’s biggest stage after missing the last tournament with a knee injury, and having regained his touch at Monaco after disastrous loan spells with Manchester United and Chelsea the experienced striker can do some damage. Behind him, James Rodríguez was one of the stars of the 2014 event, and is more than capable of setting up goals and scoring them himself. Juan Cuadrado is a dangerous winger, and Luis Muriel and Carlos Bacca add more depth to a formidable attack. Their defence is also strong, with two very talented centre-backs in Dávinson Sánchez and Yerry Mina receiving quality support from right-back Santiago Arias. Experienced goalkeeper David Ospina rounds out a side that could cause some problems.

The midfield, however, will be an area of significant concern for Los Cafeteros. Powerful defensive midfielder Carlos Sánchez is lacking a partner, and none of the options are perfect. Abel Aguilar is past his prime, while the men striving to replace him, Mateus Uribe and Wílmar Barrios, are still fairly inexperienced at an international level. If the right option isn’t found in Russia it will impact all aspects of Colombia’s game, and the lack of a clear solution is an issue coming into the tournament. An injury to left-back Frank Fabra has also left a hole that will need to be filled quickly. Johan Mojica was Fabra’s deputy, and it makes sense for him to come in, but the pacey left-back doesn’t have much international experience and will not have played much football with the rest of the defence. Considering the inexperience of the two centre-backs (Dávinson and Mina have just 21 caps between them) the addition of another relatively new player to the back four could create an issue.

Star Player: James Rodríguez

James has enjoyed a rather frustrating four years since his eye-catching performance at the last World Cup, where he was the tournament’s top scorer despite Colombia’s quarter-final elimination. After falling out of favour at Real Madrid he found some form this season after a loan move to Bayern Munich, and he will be ready to show off his many talents in Russia. At his best, he can do it all.

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James Rodríguez scores against Bolivia during World Cup qualifying. James is Colombia’s best player, and if he can unleash his incredible talents in Russia he can have a huge impact.

Key Player: Yerry Mina

Mina is just 23, but he is a physically imposing centre-back who is more than capable of leading Colombia’s defence in Russia. His defensive exploits with Palmeiras earned him a mid-season move to Spanish champions Barcelona, and after competing with the world’s best he is primed for a big World Cup. He may not have much international experience, but Colombia will be hanging on his performances and he will need to step up.

One to watch: Dávinson Sánchez

Dávinson’s rise to prominence has been meteoric. In 2016, he was playing for Atlético Nacional in Colombia. Two years on, he is Tottenham Hotspur’s club-record signing, and is coming to the World Cup after his first season in England. He is a very talented defender, with pace, good defensive skills and the ability to read the game well. He is a likely starter in Russia, and could play a big role for Los Cafeteros.

Verdict

Colombia were strong in 2014, and they are definitely still a chance to do better than the quarter-finals this time around. There are lingering doubts, however, and they don’t quite seem up to a really deep run.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Ospina; Arias, D Sánchez, Mina, Mojica; C Sánchez, Uribe; Cuadrado, Rodríguez, Izquierdo; Falcao.

Japan

Head Coach: Akira Nishino
Captain: Makoto Hasebe
Previous Appearances: 5 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
Qualified: AFC, 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Keisuke Honda (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Eiji Kawashima (Metz), 12. Masaaki Higashiguchi (Gamba Osaka), 23. Kōsuke Nakamura (Kashiwa Reysol).
Defenders: 2. Naomichi Ueda (Kashima Antlers), 3. Gen Sh­ōji (Kashima Antlers), 5. Yūto Nagatomo (Galatasaray), 6. Wataru Endō (Urawa Red Diamonds), 19. Hiroki Sakai (Marseille), 20. Tomoaki Marino (Urawa Red Diamonds), 21. Gōtoku Sakai (Hamburg), 22. Maya Yoshida (Southampton).
Midfielders: 4. Keisuke Honda (Pachuca), 7. Gaku Shibasaki (Getafe), 8. Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Düsseldorf), 10. Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), 11. Takashi Usami (Fortuna Düsseldorf), 14. Takashi Inui (Eibar), 16. Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka), 17. Makoto Hasebe (Eintracht Frankfurt), 18. Ryota Oshima (Kawasaki Frontale).
Forwards: 9. Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City), 13. Yoshinori Mutō (Mainz), 15. Yūya Ōsako (Köln).

Japan didn’t qualify as smoothly as they would have liked, but they would take the end result. Despite some struggles, they managed to progress with a game to spare, and they have been drawn into a group which gives them a chance of making it through to the second round. Japan have an experienced side, and many of their core players are known quantities who can perform dependably in Russia. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima is supported by a solid defence of Maya Yoshida, Gōtoku Sakai, Yūto Nagatomo, Tomoaki Marino and Hiroki Sakai, while Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi and Ryota Oshima provide stability in midfield. Genki Haraguchi emerged as a dangerous presence in attack during qualifying, and new coach Akira Nishino’s decision to recall out-of-favour stars Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa will provide the side with experience and class in the front third. With their experience and quality all over the park, Japan could be a tough opponent.

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Keisuke Honda (left) and Shinji Kagawa celebrate with teammates after Japan’s qualifying win over Thailand. Both Honda and Kagawa were exiled from the team under Vahid Halilhodžić, but have returned for the World Cup after a change in coach.

Then there’s just the small matter of their coaching situation. Nishino is still new to the job, having taken over after Japan lost patience with Vahid Halilhodžić – in April. The appointment of Nishino has allowed some of the experienced players dropped by Halilhodžić to filter back in, but the uncertainty surrounding the coaching situation has led to a drop-off in results. Nishino is an experienced campaigner, but it’s not clear whether he can tie the team together and bring out their best play in Russia, after just two months at the helm. Nishino’s switch to a back three has also caused issues, with the team struggling to adjust to the changes in pre-tournament defeats against Ghana and Switzerland. Results have been declining for Japan for some time, and they will be hoping that they can avoid a repeat of the limp showing they put in at the last World Cup. Unfortunately for them, the removal of Halilhodžić, and the turmoil of the last few months, means this tournament could be a disaster.

Star Player: Shinji Kagawa

Kagawa got his big break when he was signed by Borussia Dortmund in 2010, and the versatile and skilled attacking midfielder has established himself on the European stage with solid performances. He is back in the Japanese squad after an absence driven by a falling out with Halilhodžić, and he will give the side a boost with his ability to create goals for himself and others.

Key Player: Maya Yoshida

Yoshida has been Japan’s rock in central defence for years, and with all the turmoil off the field they will be relying on his to provide leadership and consistency from the back. He has improved dramatically in six seasons with Premier League side Southampton, and Japan will be hoping his experience comes to the fore in Russia. He is a strong defender, and he is good enough to stand up.

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Maya Yoshida (right) scores during a qualifier against Afghanistan. Yoshida is the rock at the heart of Japan’s defence, and will play a key role in Russia.

One to watch: Takashi Usami

Usami has always been a talent. He joined German giants Bayern Munich in 2011, aged 19, but nothing really came of it. Ever since, Usami has struggled for consistency, but his key role in Fortuna Düsseldorf’s promotion to the Bundesliga could mark a turning point in the now 26-year-old’s career. He has plenty of talent, and the World Cup may just be his chance to realise it.

Verdict

Japan have got an experienced core of proven performers, and could well challenge for the knockouts. The sacking of Halilhodžić, however, and the turmoil created by the move just two months out, don’t bode well. It could be a short trip.
Likely Team (3-4-2-1): Kawashima; Yoshida, Hasebe, Marino; G Sakai, Yamaguchi, Haraguchi, Nagatomo; Honda, Kagawa; Okazaki.

Prediction

This group is one of the most exciting in the tournament, and the lack of a traditional powerhouse creates plenty of uncertainty about how things will play out. Japan’s turbulent lead-up to the World Cup may end up ruling them out, and against strong opposition it’s hard to see them going through. At the other end, the Poles are clearly the most consistent side in this group, and if, as expected, they make it through to the knockouts they will be a force to be reckoned with. Then there’s the wildcards. Colombia and Senegal have got plenty of talent, especially in attack, and they could easily knock off Poland if they put everything together. All in all, this group contains one of the tournament’s most eclectic mixes, and it should be plenty of fun.
1. Poland, 2. Colombia, 3. Senegal, 4. Japan

World Cup Preview – Group C

Group C

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Colombia (4), Greece (12), Côte d’Ivoire (17), Japan (48)
Fixtures:
Colombia vs Greece, Belo Horizonte
Côte d’Ivoire vs Japan, Recife
Colombia vs Côte d’Ivoire, Brasilia
Japan vs Greece, Natal
Japan vs Colombia, Cuiaba
Greece vs Côte d’Ivoire, Fortaleza

Colombia

Coach: Jose Pekerman
Captain: Mario Yepes
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1962, 1990, 1994, 1998)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1990)
Qualified: 2nd in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Radamel Falcao (9)

Form Guide

Colombia qualified for the tournament in second, after a qualifying campaign that included a 5-0 win over Bolivia and a 4-0 win over 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay. Their qualification was sealed in an interesting manner, after coming back from 3-0 down to draw with Chile.

Strengths

The Colombians, like many of the South American sides, have an excellent attack. They have finally worked out how to yield all of Radamel Falcao’s talent, and he scored 9 times over the qualifying campaign. The Monaco striker is ably supported by the likes of Jackson Martinez (Porto), James Rodriguez (Monaco), Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate) and Fredy Guarin (Internazionale). The midfield is also strong and a majority of the players are playing in the stronger European leagues.

Weaknesses

The Colombian defence, while still quite strong, is not the best that will be found. Players such as captain Mario Yepes and Luis Ernesto Perea, likely to play as the centre-halves for the tournament, are 38 and 35 respectively, and are well past their prime. This could be an issue, especially if they make it through to the knockout stages of the tournament. The very strong attack of the Côte d’Ivoire will cause issues.

Greece

Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Giorgos Karagounis
World Cup Appearances: 2 (1994, 2010)
Best Result: Group Stage: (1994, 2010)
Qualified: 2nd Group G, went on to defeat Romania in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Kostas Mitroglou (5)

Form Guide

The Greeks failed to qualify automatically for the tournament, as Bosnia and Herzegovina smashed them on goal difference to qualify. The Greeks defensive record was brilliant, with only 4 goals conceded in their 10 group stage matches. Two goals to Kostas Mitroglou gave them a 3-1 win in the first leg of their play-off against Romania, and a 1-1 draw in Bucharest sent the Greeks through to their second consecutive World Cup.

Strengths

The Greek defence has always been strong, and if any side in this group can hold off the Colombian and Ivoirian attacks it would be them. Throughout their 12 qualifying matches the Greeks conceded just 6 goals. This was mainly due to players such as Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Avraam Papadopoulos, Jose Holebas, Ioannis Maniatis, Vasilis Torosidis and Loukas Vyntra. While the attack struggled in the group stage of qualifying, players such as Kostas Mitroglou, Dimitris Salpingidis, Theofanis Gekas and Giorgos Samaras are all top-level players, with Mitroglou in fine touch.

Weaknesses

The Greeks only scored 12 goals over their 10 first-round qualifying matches, and it was for this reason that they were condemned to the play-offs. Another concern for the Greeks is the lack of quality they faced in qualifying, with their group consisting of Bosnia and Herzegovina (who dominated), Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Liechtenstein, by no means the standard of the teams they will face in Brazil, meaning they may be shown up. If the attacks of the Côte d’Ivoire and Colombia do penetrate the Greek defence, the attack may struggle to make up the deficit.

Côte d’Ivoire

Coach: Sabri Lamouchi
Captain: Didier Drogba
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2006, 2010)
Best Result: Group Stage (2006, 2010)
Qualified: 1st Group C, went on to defeat Senegal in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Salomon Kalou (5)

Form Guide

The Côte d’Ivoire passed through the group stage of qualifying easily enough, with two draws against Morocco the only blip on the radar. After being drawn to play Senegal in the play-offs, they beat them 3-1, after a late goal to Cisse gave the Senegalese some respite. Senegal led 1-0 for much of the second leg (played in Morocco due to security issues in Senegal) but a late equaliser to Salomon Kalou all but assured the progress of Les Éléphants.

Strengths

The Ivoirian attack is very strong, with players such as Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho, Seydou Doumbia, Didier Ya Konan, Arouna Kone and Kalou, who scored 5 goals in qualifying, including the goal that all but sealed qualification for the Côte d’Ivoire. This attack is world class, and with Premier League stars Yaya Toure and Cheick Tiote setting up chances in midfield their attack will be tough to defend against. Another positive for the Ivoirians is the fact that a lot of their players are playing first team football in Europe, with their best players all leading the line at some of the best clubs in Europe.

Weaknesses

While the attack is very strong, the defence is the opposite. Goalkeeper Boubacar Barry is not quite at the standard of the best in the world, and he plies his trade at Belgian club Lokeren, who aren’t one of the top clubs. While Liverpool’s Kolo Toure is solid in the centre of defence, there aren’t any other top class defenders available. The side is also ageing, and while this leads to an experienced national set-up, these players are not at their peak but they should be capable of good results in this tournament.

Japan

Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Captain: Makoto Hasebe
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
Qualified: 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Shinji Okazaki (8)

Form Guide

Japan received a bye for the first two rounds of AFC qualifying, and after passing through to the fourth round (finishing second in group C behind Uzbekistan), they smashed Oman and Jordan in their first two games (3-0 and 6-0 respectively). While they only scored 7 more goals over their last 6 matches they still finished a comfortable first, with two more wins than any of their opponents.

Strengths

Japan have been the premier side in Asia for years, and they pulled off some big wins. They are the reigning Asia Cup champions, and they have consistently qualified for the World Cup. The side has strength all over the park, ranging from Eiji Kawashima in goal to Shinji Okazaki up front. Players such as Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Kagawa, Atsuto Uchida, Yasuhito Endo and others. The large number of players in big European leagues is another bonus. This is a side with the ability to go far.

Weaknesses

While they were strong in qualifying, the Japanese have dropped to 48 in the world rankings. Kagawa, who plies his trade at Manchester United, has played 10 games in total this season, and 3 of those were as a substitute. The depth of the side may also be called into question during this tournament, and despite the top-bracket players at their disposal the Japanese have drawn most of their reserves from the relatively weak J-League. The team’s recent success will also bring with it a weight of expectation, which the Blue Samurai may struggle to match in a tough group.

My Predictions

This will be a very exciting and competitive group. Expect plenty of goals, especially from Colombia and the Côte d’Ivoire, who have some potent attacking forces at their disposal. Expect some exciting and close games, as any combination of teams could progress to the next stage.
1. Côte d’Ivoire, 2. Colombia, 3. Japan, 4. Greece
Next: I preview Group D, where three former champions are set to meet.
PS: I apologise for my recent lack of posts. I will attempt to amend this over the coming months. I hope you enjoy the rest of my world cup preview.