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.

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

UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 Preview

On Tuesday the UEFA Champions League begins again, with Europe’s best battling it out on one of the world’s greatest stages. This year we see Liverpool’s return and Manchester United’s departure from the elite, as well as the remarkable return of Monaco, who were just two years ago in the second tier of French football. Real Madrid will be on a high after becoming the first European side to win ten continental titles, but can anyone knock them off their perch? It will be very interesting to see. In this preview I will look in depth at the first matchday, providing predictions, key matches, players to watch and also key questions. Enjoy.

Matches: (Predicted winner in bold)

Tuesday September 16

Olympiacos vs Atletico Madrid, Karaiskakis Stadium, Piraeus (1-2)
Atletico should be too good despite recent losses in the transfer market.
Juventus vs Malmo, Juventus Stadium, Turin (4-0)
Newbies Malmo no match for the experience and class of Juve.
Liverpool vs Ludogorets Razgrad, Anfield, Liverpool (4-0)
Ludogorets will really struggle against the stronger opposition.
Real Madrid vs Basel, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid (3-0)
On a high after great success it is hard to see Real going down.
Monaco vs Bayer Leverkusen, Stade Louis II, Monaco (1-1)
A close contest that really could go either way.
Benfica vs Zenit St Petersburg, Estadio da Luz, Lisbon (1-3)
Zenit should have too much class for a slightly weakened Benfica.
Galatasaray vs Anderlecht, Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul (3-0)
Galatasaray should cruise past Anderlecht, especially at home.

Key Game: Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal, Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund
These two sides met in the group stage of last year’s tournament, with the odds split evenly over the two matches, in both cases the away side winning by a goal. With Dortmund losing centre forward Robert Lewandowski to rivals Bayern in the summer their attack has been weakened, and it is still to be seen how new recruit Ciro Immobile will cope with the pressure. On the other side, Arsenal have splashed out a bit in the transfer market, reeling in Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, both of whom will be key to the attack, as well as Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina in defence. This will be an extraordinarily exciting game, and it should be a very close one in the end.
Verdict: Both sides incredibly strong but home-ground advantage tips it slightly in Dortmund’s favour. Borussia Dortmund 2-1.

Wednesday September 17

Roma vs CSKA Moscow, Stadio Olimpico, Rome (3-1)
Roma return to the European stage and should knock off CSKA at home.

Key Game: Bayern Munich vs Manchester City, Allianz Arena, Munich
Whenever the champions of England and Germany collide, it is going to be a very big match. While these two sides picked up their titles in dramatically different fashions (Bayern cruised through while City snatched it from Liverpool with 5 straight wins late in the season) they are both brilliant sides. Bayern have lost young star Toni Kroos over the summer, but with players such as Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Xherdan Shaqiri, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, Bayern are a serious contender for the title. While Manchester City have under-performed in Europe in past tournaments they should not be underestimated, and now that their players have had some experience of the Champions League they are a good enough side to go a very long way.
Verdict: Manchester City are a good side but Bayern are just too good. Bayern Munich 2-0.

Barcelona vs APOEL, Camp Nou, Barcelona (5-0)
With Neymar and Messi fit again APOEL will be no match for Barca.
Ajax vs Paris Saint-Germain, Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (0-2)
Ajax are strong but PSG should out-do them.
Chelsea vs Schalke 04, Stamford Bridge, London (1-0)
Schalke will provide a challenge but Chelsea should meet it at home.
Maribor vs Sporting CP, Ljudski vrt, Maribor (1-1)
Interesting match-up, but neither side quite strong enough to win.
Porto vs BATE Borisov, Estadio do Dragao, Porto (2-0)
Porto have a strong enough team to cruise past the Belarusians.
Athletic Bilbao vs Shakhtar Donetsk, San Mames, Bilbao (2-2)
Shakhtar will provide a test but Athletic should match them at home.

Players to watch

Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
After playing brilliantly during Germany’s World Cup triumph Kroos was picked up by Real. A very good provider of aerial chances from dead ball situations, he has the skills to fit perfectly into the system of Real Madrid and it will be very exciting to see how he performs at his new club.

Diego Costa (Chelsea)
After scoring 8 Champions League goals to help Atletico make the final of the tournament Costa has moved to London. He had a very disappointing World Cup and he will be looking to rectify this against Schalke. If he fires then Chelsea could mount a serious challenge.

James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)
James picked up the golden boot at the World Cup, scoring 6 times in 5 games for Colombia. Such form was enough for Real Madrid to pay €75 million for his signature. They will be hoping for the versatile midfielder to repay them, and he is easily able to provide goals and assists for Carlo Ancelotti’s team.

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
In Sterling both Liverpool and England have a player who could easily become a superstar. He has incredible pace and after a brilliant league campaign last season he is fully ready to showcase his talent upon the European stage. Expect excitement, and lots of it.

Ciro Immobile (Borussia Dortmund)
After being offloaded to Torino by Juventus at the start of last season Immobile went on to shine, scoring 22 times. Having been bought by Borussia Dortmund to replace Robert Lewandowski, however, he has the weight of expectation on his shoulders, and it will be interesting to see how he copes.

Neymar (Barcelona)
As the host nation’s talisman in the World Cup, Neymar shone until a bad challenge from Juan Zuniga in the quarter-finals left him with a broken back. Now available after returning from his injury it will be very interesting to see how he fares against a relatively weak APOEL team.

Key Questions

How will Liverpool and Monaco fare on their return to Europe’s elite?
Liverpool have been drawn into a group that they should progress from, as Basel and Ludogorets are not good enough to really worry them. Plenty of players in the side have some experience at this level, and with young stars Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge both explosive players in attack Liverpool should be fine. Monaco, on the other hand, are a different proposition. They have offloaded Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez to Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively, and in a tough group containing Benfica, Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen they may struggle, as this side is not near the team that came second last season in class.

Will this be the season when English sides meet their potential?
It will be interesting to see how the English teams fare in this tournament, with Manchester City and Arsenal facing an early test this week. They face German powerhouses Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, and with Liverpool drawn into a group with reigning champions Real Madrid we should soon find out how these sides compare with the best in Europe. Chelsea have been drawn into a much easier group with Schalke, Sporting and Maribor and they should easily progress. Also, in terms of class and experience, Chelsea are probably the best of the English sides and I would be surprised if they did not at least reach the quarter-finals of this season’s tournament.

How will Atletico Madrid recover from their big losses over summer?
Atletico have lost some of the key members of the team that made the final of last season’s tournament, losing keeper Thibaut Courtois, left-back Filipe Luis and striker Diego Costa to Chelsea, as well as strikers Adrian Lopez (Porto) and David Villa (New York City) and attacking midfielder Diego (Fenerbahce). They have made extensive signings to compensate for this, mainly in attack where Mario Mandzukic, Raul Jimenez, Angel Correa, Alessio Cerci and French winger Antoine Griezmann have been picked up. Miguel Angel Moya and Jan Oblak have been picked up to rectify the goalkeeper situation, but whether these signings can replace Courtois, who is one of the best keepers in the world, and Costa, who contributed 38 goals in all competitions last season, remains to be seen. If anyone can pull them through it is Diego Simeone, whose coaching feats were incredible last season, and they have a reasonable draw, but it would take a very special effort to replicate last season’s all-round success.

Can Real Madrid be beaten?
After a stunning 4-1 victory (after extra time) over Atletico in Lisbon a tenth European crown was claimed for Real Madrid. On a high after completing ‘La Decima’ the champions have signed three stars of the recent World Cup in Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas, Colombian attacking midfielder James Rodriguez and German playmaker Toni Kroos. Combine these players with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Isco, Sami Khedira, Karim Benzema and Luka Modric amongst others and you begin to see why Real are the best team in Europe. There are teams who can beat them, and Barcelona and Bayern Munich immediately spring to mind, but Real are looking like pretty strong favourites at the moment.