Belgium come back from the dead to leave Japan heartbroken

Keisuke Honda prepared to take the corner kick. With around 30 seconds remaining in Japan’s round of 16 clash with Belgium, the match was finely poised. One goal either way was sure to win it, with the scores level at 2-2 in the 94th minute. Honda, brought on to provide an impact from the bench, had won the corner, forcing Thibaut Courtois to dive full length to bat away his very long-range free-kick. Now, he put the ball into the centre, knowing that a goal would seal a famous Japanese victory.

Such a victory had seemed impossible when the sides began the match and inevitable shortly after half-time, when the Japanese went 2-0 up. Japan had only reached this stage on fair play points, while Belgium had looked like the real deal as their dynamic attack blew sides away in the group stage. Belgium were expected to cruise through, and their first half did little to suggest that Japan would give them any trouble. They exerted an almost effortless dominance over the Japanese, continuing to batter them until they seemed sure to crack.

Honda’s cross was too close to Courtois to give Japan a realistic chance of scoring. With his usual ease, Courtois seemed to glide off his line to take the ball, and he seemed to navigate the traffic of the penalty area with minimal fuss as he looked to offload possession to a teammate. Knowing the urgency of the situation, and the potential for a swift counter-attack, Courtois was moving quite quickly. From the expression on his face, you’d think he was going through a training drill.

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Takashi Inui celebrates after putting Japan 2-0 up early in the second half. Inui’s goal, a brilliantly taken shot from distance, seemed to give Japan the head-start they needed to claim a famous victory.

Courtois’ demeanour wasn’t quite so serene when Takashi Inui beat him just after half time. Belgium had already gone behind a few minutes earlier thanks to a counter-attacking goal from Genki Haraguchi, and they were determinedly trying to erase the deficit. In this climate, Japan found themselves going forward once more, only to have their attack rebuffed by Vincent Kompany’s solid defensive header. And then rebooted again, as Shinji Kagawa picked up the ball on the edge of the box. He controlled it and passed it to Inui, who lashed it into the back of the net from range. Earlier in the tournament, Inui had scored an excellent goal against Senegal. It was neither as good nor as important as this one. Belgium were behind, and Courtois’ stunned expression was a perfect representation of how Belgium were feeling. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Courtois rolled the ball out from the edge of the area, spotting a running Kevin de Bruyne in the middle of Belgium’s half. There were no Japanese players in sight as Belgium’s star playmaker ran through the middle of the field, approaching the halfway line with the same calm urgency that Courtois had shown seconds earlier. He passed halfway unchallenged, and continued to stroll unchallenged until he reached the edge of the centre circle.

De Bruyne’s fortunes had loosely mirrored those of his side. Early on in the piece, he had been decent but not quite at his best, making a few nice passes but never coming up with the impromptu moments of brilliance which so often define his play. Then, after the second goal, he fell apart with the rest of his team. Belgium’s star-studded attack seemed shell-shocked, and de Bruyne wasn’t quite working at his best alongside Belgian captain Eden Hazard. Belgium’s problems were not just isolated to two misfiring stars. Romelu Lukaku, who had looked so dynamic earlier in the match, was somehow missing chances he would normally convert in his sleep. They were making mistakes in possession, and attacks were breaking down without any need for Japanese intervention. Left wing-back Yannick Carrasco was woeful, seemingly turning the ball over every time he got it. Belgium’s so-called golden generation was unravelling against the disciplined Japanese, and there seemed to be nothing anyone could do about it.

De Bruyne had plenty of options as he entered Belgium’s attacking half. He chose Thomas Meunier, streaming down the right wing. Meunier received the ball in the final third, and things were starting to get a little nervous for the Japanese. Belgium’s counter-attack looked fluent, and Japan’s defence was stretched to dangerous levels as the Belgian wing-back ran onto the ball. Meunier had options inside the box, and he kept running forward with those options at the front of his mind. Japan just didn’t have the numbers to put any pressure on Meunier, and he prepared to cross the ball into the box at his own leisure.

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Genki Haraguchi (front) scores the opening goal of the match past Jan Vertonghen (centre) and Thibaut Courtois. The goal came from a one-man counter-attack, and a poor piece of defending from Vertonghen.

Meunier had been partially responsible for Japan’s first goal, which really set the cat among the pigeons. He attempted to combine with Dries Mertens on the right wing, as he had done to good effect plenty of times in the first half. When Mertens lost the ball attempting to pass it in his direction, it didn’t seem too costly. Japan hadn’t made them pay in the first half. The ball that Gaku Shibasaki played in his attempt to break the defence open didn’t seem likely to make Belgium pay either. Genki Haraguchi was running through, but Jan Vertonghen was in the way. Somehow, he failed to make the challenge required to nip the slightly concerning but flawed counter-attack in the bud. His touch wasn’t enough to prevent the ball getting through, and Haraguchi managed to slip his shot past Courtois, with Vertonghen desperately chasing him to atone for his error.

Vertonghen got that chance with about 20 minutes of normal time remaining, and he seized the opportunity to reduce the deficit and shake Belgium out of their shock-induced stupor. The opening was a small one, and it came from a poorly defended corner. The ball bounced around in the box, and eventually it was hacked high in the air. It didn’t leave the area, instead landing right on top of Vertonghen in a rather unlikely goal-scoring position. On a tight angle, the centre-back’s best chance seemed to be a header into the middle, where others could attempt to capitalise. Instead, he chanced his arm. The truly remarkable looped into the back of the net from an acute angle, nestling itself into the bottom corner despite Eiji Kawashima’s best efforts and giving Belgium hope of salvaging something from the match.

Meunier played his cross into the centre, looking for Lukaku. The big forward had run into the box as Belgium looked to break, and he found himself face to face with a defender as the ball reached him. He could try to beat the man in front of him and let off a shot, or trap the ball, hold it with his back to goal and feed an onrushing player. Or he could just let it through, where he knew he had a teammate bearing down on goal. Lukaku decided to let it through.

Lukaku had been heavily involved in Belgium’s best chance to go ahead after the equaliser. With normal time winding down, Meunier picked out Nacer Chadli, who forced Kawashima into an acrobatic save and collected the ball as it ricocheted back into play. He lofted another pass into the centre, where Lukaku was waiting. While Belgium were falling apart, Lukaku had been on the end of two such crosses. One ended up wide of the target from point-blank range and the other was well blocked. Now, his header was on target but athletically tipped over the bar by Kawashima. Japan were holding on, and continuing to play out of their skins as they sought to find some kind of result. Akira Nishino’s men weren’t settling for extra time, and they were continuing to throw players forward in an attempt to win the game. In the end, it probably cost them.

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Nacer Chadli (in red) scores the winning goal in the 94th minute. Chadli’s finish sealed Belgium’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down, the first such comeback in a knockout game since 1970.

Lukaku let the ball pass through his legs, allowing Chadli to run onto it in space. Japan’s defence had been stretched to the point where they offered no resistance as Chadli collected the ball. There was nobody there to stop him. The second half substitute had a golden opportunity, and he slammed it emphatically past Kawashima’s futile attempts to deny him.  A Japanese defender slid in, but he came in too late to make an impact. Miraculously, Belgium had won. Miraculously, Nacer Chadli had come up with the goal to send them to the quarter-finals, with just eight seconds of injury time remaining. Japan had surely lost. Belgium had surely won.

Chadli played a big part in Belgium’s crucial second goal. He had looked good after replacing Carrasco, and when he received the ball from a Japanese corner with space to run into he just took off. Inui attempted to impede him and stop him from breaking through. Chadli shook him off. Eventually, the counter-attack created a corner, as de Bruyne’s shot was blocked over the bar. Hazard was taking it. The corner was cleared away, but de Bruyne still managed to find himself the ball with time and space. He was too far out to score, but he knew exactly where Hazard was and he passed it to his captain in space on the left wing. After a bit of dribbling, Hazard crossed. It was another substitute, Marouane Fellaini, who met the ball with his head and couldn’t miss from close range. The decision to replace Mertens with Fellaini had seemed an intriguing one at the time. The afroed midfielder more than justified his introduction with that one moment.

Chadli’s goal came with basically the last kick of the game, and sealed one of the most remarkable comeback wins in World Cup history. When the final whistle blew, Belgium’s reaction was one of overwhelming relief, while Japan’s was one of complete despair. The Japanese had given their all, and found themselves in a position where they looked almost certain to progress. They had brought one of the competition’s favourites to their knees, yet they still found themselves beaten. As for Belgium, it’s hard to know what to think. There were plenty of good moments, and their stunning comeback shows that they have good spirit and excellent resolve, but they’ll have to ask themselves what went wrong in the first place. In the end, the enthralling, rollicking battle sent Belgium through, and that’s really all they can ask for.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Belgium 3 (Vertonghen 69, Fellaini 74, Chadli 90+4)
Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48, Inui 52)
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Belgium (3-4-2-1): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, de Bruyne, Witsel, Carrasco (Chadli 65); Mertens (Fellaini 65), E Hazard; Lukaku.
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki (Yamaguchi 81); Haraguchi (Honda 81), Kagawa, Inui; Ōsako.

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Marouane Fellaini celebrates after scoring Belgium’s second goal from the bench. Fellaini’s size had a big impact on the latter part of the game, as he collected a goal and repeatedly threatened the Japanese defence.

Top 5
1. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier dropped off slightly during Belgium’s poor period after the second goal, but he was otherwise consistent and very dangerous. His delivery from the right wing was excellent, and he used his size to good effect when tracking back to assist the defence.
2. Nacer Chadli (Belgium)
Chadli came on for Carrasco and immediately reinvigorated the Belgians with his confident ball use and his dynamic run down the left. He contributed to two of Belgium’s three goals, and scored the winner in the dying moments. With Carrasco looking horribly out of form, Chadli is a very good chance to start in the quarter-finals.
3. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Inui scored an excellent goal to give Japan an almost unassailable lead, and his work slipping behind the Belgian defence on the break caused plenty of problems. He put in some dangerous crosses and made some very clever runs, and he was involved in basically all of Japan’s best attacks.
4. Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)
Nagatomo was excellent, doing his defensive duties as the left-back and pushing forward into dangerous positions. He put in some very dangerous crosses, and his combination with Inui was as sharp as ever. He showed his experience with an excellent individual performance.
5. Marouane Fellaini (Belgium)
The decision to bring Fellaini, a central midfielder, on for Mertens, a right winger, seemed an odd one. Mertens had been dangerous on occasions, and Fellaini has never quite been the finished product. Then, slotting in on the right wing, Fellaini delivered a brilliant performance on the right. He managed to score the equaliser with an excellent header, and showed he can be a handy impact player.

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Poland grab consolation win as everyone leaves happy

Kamil Grosicki sat down in the middle of the field. There was less than a minute left in the game between Japan and Poland, and the Polish were looking for a stoppage. Leading 1-0, they didn’t really care about Japan’s seemingly bizarre decision to run down the clock rather than risk conceding a second goal that would knock them out of the World Cup. They only wanted a chance to bring former captain Jakub Błaszczykowski on for the final seconds of the match. So Grosicki just sat there, hoping to force an injury break so the change could be made. Referee Janny Sikazwe wasn’t convinced, forcing play to continue until Japan knocked the ball out, providing the stoppage Poland were hoping for. The final whistle was blown before Poland could throw it back in, closing out a mostly entertaining game in fairly anticlimactic circumstances. In the end, everyone left happy, with Poland claiming a consolation win to end their disappointing World Cup campaign and Japan holding onto a spot in the round of 16 based on their disciplinary record. It was a weird day.

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Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima dives at full stretch to save Kamil Grosicki’s header. Kawashima wasn’t too busy as Poland didn’t mount too many attacks, but he made some good stops.

Poland controlled possession early, but the Japanese were well organised and they were generally restricted to harmlessly passing the ball around in defence. They had some chances, with Grosicki forcing Eiji Kawashima to claw his well-directed header off the goal line, but they mostly kept the ball without really threatening the Japanese goal. Instead, it was Japan who had the better opportunities, putting Poland under some pressure with their attacks. Yoshinori Mutō intercepted a hesitant pass from Jan Bednarek, and Shinji Okazaki nearly headed home as a result. A few minutes later, Mutō had another opportunity, forcing Łukasz Fabiański into a diving save with a nice shot. Takashi Usami presented a threat, moving forward well and forcing a nice save from Fabiański with a dangerous ball across goal. Neither side really looked like scoring, however, and the half passed without anything more than a few chances.

Poland began to string some better play together just after half time, with Piotr Zieliński and Grosicki combining particularly dangerously and forcing Kawashima off his line to defuse the quick break. Then, just before the hour mark, they took the lead. Rafał Kurzawa floated a perfectly-weighted free-kick into the box, dropping it at the edge of the six-yard box. Unfortunately for Japan, Bednarek was the only man in a position to run onto it. The Polish centre-back was completely open, and Kawashima had no chance as he volleyed it powerfully into the back of the net. Japan fought hard, but they were struggling to make inroads against a solid defence led by Kamil Glik, and they were lucky not to go further behind when Polish star Robert Lewandowski was teed up by Grosicki on a well-worked break. If Lewandowski was at his best, it would have spelt the end for Japan’s campaign. Lewandowski has not been at his best, and he spooned it over the bar. Japan lived on, and they kept fighting to go level.

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Kamil Glik (right) and Jan Bednarek celebrate after Bednarek’s winning goal. Poland’s central defensive pairing had a big game, repelling Japan’s attack all day long.

Then, just as the game seemed set for a gripping final 10 minutes as Japan sought to equalise, the Japanese stopped pushing. With Colombia leading Senegal 1-0, and sending the Japanese through as a result, Akira Nishino decided to gamble. He decided to gamble Japan’s future on the result of the other game, choosing to settle for a 1-0 defeat and hoping that Colombia held on. Determined not to concede, Nishino’s men simply stopped playing attacking football, instead knocking the ball around their defence and refusing to cede possession. Poland, happy with their consolation victory, made no attempt to get the ball back, and they just watched as Tomoaki Makino, Maya Yoshida, Makoto Hasebe and Takashi Inui passed it around between themselves. Sikazwe awarded three minutes of injury time. In that time, Poland didn’t touch the ball, and they didn’t really care. They got their win, Japan got through, and everyone seemed fairly content.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Japan 0
Poland 1 (Bednarek 59)
Referee: Janny Sikazwe (Zam)
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Makino, Nagatomo; Yamaguchi, Shibasaki; G Sakai, Okazaki (Ōsako 47), Usami (Inui 65); Mutō (Hasebe 82).
Poland (3-4-3): Fabiański – Bereszyński, Glik, Bednarek; Kurzawa (Peszko 80), Krychowiak, Góralski, Jędrzejczyk; Zieliński (Teodorczyk 79), Lewandowski, Grosicki.

Top 5
1. Kamil Glik (Poland)
If Glik was fully fit and available for Poland’s opening two fixtures, it’s quite possible the Polish wouldn’t have folded so meekly. Back in the starting line-up, he led Poland to a consolation victory with his solid defensive play. Every time a shot was blocked he seemed to be the man doing the blocking, and it’s no coincidence that Poland got their only win in the only game he played.
2. Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
Grosicki had a big impact on the right wing, creating most of Poland’s best attacking play and coming very close to either scoring or picking up an assist in a strong performance. His crosses were as dangerous as ever, and he managed to get himself into plenty of good positions.
3. Yoshinori Mutō (Japan)
Mutō looked very lively up front after coming into the team for Yūya Ōsako, pressing the defence and receiving the ball in some dangerous areas. His skills were good, and he mounted a decent case for inclusion in Japan’s team for the remainder of the tournament.
4. Bartosz Bereszyński (Poland)
Bereszyński worked hard all day on the right side of defence, overlapping well with Grosicki and having a big impact at both ends of the field. His hard running had a huge impact on Poland’s play, and he seems to be a talented prospect for the future.
5. Rafał Kurzawa (Poland)
Kurzawa hasn’t played too many internationals, but his strong performance as a drifting attacking midfielder may grant him more opportunities in the future. His set piece delivery was excellent, and his free-kick to assist the only goal of the game was perfectly weighted and split the Japanese defence expertly.

Honours even as Japan and Senegal play out thriller

This match was always likely to entertain, and it didn’t disappoint. With Senegal and Japan throwing Group H wide open by pulling off upset wins in their first games, their meeting in Yekaterinburg was both important and very intriguing. The two sides couldn’t be split in 90 minutes of open, end-to-end football. Twice Senegal pulled ahead. Twice Japan equalised. It wouldn’t have seemed right if one side had come out on top in a pulsating, absorbing and very competitive contest. It was World Cup football at its best.

Senegal started well, and they took an early lead through a series of Japanese defensive errors. Moussa Wagué found plenty of space to put a cross in, but his ball wasn’t very good and it picked out Genki Haraguchi. The Japanese winger had plenty of time to clear the ball, and he could have done any number of things. Unfortunately for Japan, he picked out the man he had abandoned to win the header, and Senegalese left-back Youssouf Sabaly found himself in plenty of space with the ball at his feet. He tried a shot, but it went straight at Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima. It shouldn’t have been a problem for Japan. Then Kawashima decided to punch the ball instead of catching it. Sadio Mané had followed Sabaly’s shot in, and Senegal’s star winger didn’t need to move as the keeper punched it straight into his knee and the rebound bounced into the back of the net.

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Japan celebrate after scoring their first goal through Takashi Inui. Inui finished with a goal and an assist, and his input allowed Japan to come away with a 2-2 draw.

Japan began to settle into the game as the first half progressed, and they levelled just after the first half hour. The goal started when a long cross-field ball found Yūto Nagatomo on the edge of the Japanese penalty area. Senegal were slow to react to Nagatomo’s heavy first touch, and the Japanese left-back was able to recover the ball near goal. He offloaded for Takashi Inui, and the left-winger’s exquisite curling shot beat Khadim N’Diaye’s desperate dive to nestle itself in the bottom corner. It was a stunning goal, and the Japanese were back on level terms after their slow start. Senegal nearly scored soon after when M’Baye Niang latched onto a dangerous ball, but Kawashima managed to make an excellent save to deny the dynamic striker. It was one of the only clear-cut chances in the first half which didn’t result in a goal, but the match wasn’t any less entertaining for the large breaks in goalmouth action.

The second half started slowly, with both teams settling back into the rhythm of the game and neither creating many early chances. Then, just after the hour, Japan took the ascendency. Japan had a stunning chance just after the hour when Yūya Ōsako had the opportunity to steer Gaku Shibasaki’s dangerous cross home. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t get his outstretched the leg to the ball, and the chance was gone. Japan followed that chance with a dangerous attack which was wasted by Ōsako’s poor cross from a promising position, and seconds later they nearly scored when Inui hit the bar against a stretched Senegalese defence. The Lions of Teranga were under pressure to respond, and respond they did.

Mané started it. He collected the ball on the left-wing with seemingly no options available to him and a defender standing directly in front of him. Then, with excellent vision and even better skill, he chipped the man corralling him and picked out Sabaly brilliantly in the box. The left-back held off his man, took a spin and put in a low cross which rolled through the area and sat up in a vacant part of the box. The chance seemed lost when Wagué stepped up. The 19-year-old right-back rushed into the box at pace, and with one touch he slammed the ball past Kawashima to put Senegal back in front. Once again, Senegal had presented Japan with a challenge. Once again, Japan fought back and responded.

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Moussa Wagué wheels away in celebration after putting Senegal in front during the second half. The lead provided by Wagué’s strike lasted less than 10 minutes. 

It didn’t take long. They had a great chance when Ōsako found space to shoot from a corner, but towering Senegalese centre-back Salif Sané got his body in the way and kept the shot out. A few minutes later, Keisuke Honda grabbed the equaliser after a bungle from N’Diaye. The Senegalese keeper jumped at a cross that Sané had already headed away, and he went crashing to the turf, unable to impact the play. When Inui kept the ball alive, and held possession on the by-line with N’Diaye lying helplessly on the ground, Senegal were in trouble. The assembled defenders couldn’t block Inui’s cross, and Honda, having come on just a few minutes before, easily finished the chance past last man Kalidou Koulibaly. With just over 10 minutes left the scores were level, and neither side was willing to give up on victory.

Neither side scored again, but the drama continued right to the final whistle as both teams continued to attack and neither manager felt comfortable settling for a draw. In the end, both defences faced some dangerous attacks but held firm. In the end, the sides shared the spoils after one of the games of the tournament, and placed themselves in a strong but not unassailable position going into their final games. After putting on such a thrilling show, it wouldn’t have been fair any other way.

Yekaterinburg – Central Stadium
Japan 2 (Inui 34, Honda 78)
Senegal 2 (Mané 11, Wagué 71)
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Japan (4-2-3-1): Kawashima – H Sakai, Yoshida, Shōji, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Shibasaki; Haraguchi (Okazaki 75), Kagawa (Honda 72), Inui (Usami 87); Ōsako.
Senegal (4-3-3): K N’Diaye – Wagué, Sané, Koulibaly, Sabaly; B Ndiaye (N’Doye 81), A N’Diaye (Kouyaté 65), Gueye; Sarr, Niang (Diouf 86), Mané.

Top 5
1. Takashi Inui (Japan)
Inui was dangerous all game, cutting inside to good effect and playing a hand in both of Japan’s goals. His finish to level the scores in the first half was top class, and his pass to set up Honda’s late goal was a very nice piece of work. With a goal and an assist, he had a huge impact on the result.
2. Moussa Wagué (Senegal)
Wagué may only be 19, but the young right-back stepped up to the pressure of a crunch World Cup clash and passed the test with flying colours. He became the youngest African player to score at the tournament after storming into the box and finishing powerfully, and his defensive work was always solid. He looks like a great prospect.
3. Sadio Mané (Senegal)
Mané was quiet by his lofty standards in Senegal’s upset opening win over Poland, and he was never going to stay down for two matches in a row. He had his biggest impact early on when he scored a true poachers’ goal, but he stayed involved in the game and started the move which led to their second goal with a very good pass.
4. Yūto Nagatomo (Japan)
Nagatomo had a tough job marking the rapid Ismaïla Sarr, but he managed to keep the talented winger fairly quiet while simultaneously providing an attacking threat with his incisive overlapping runs. He combined well with Inui to put the Senegalese defence under pressure, and he showed his experience with some crucial pieces of defensive work.
5. Salif Sané (Senegal)
Sané towers above everyone else on the field, and he looked particularly imposing as he continually rebuffed Japanese attacks with his remarkable size and athleticism. He was almost unbeatable in the air, and he made life very difficult for the Japanese when they tried to score from set pieces.

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

AFC Asian Cup Preview

On Friday the 9th of January the Asian Cup starts in Australia. This year there are many teams that could take home the crown, and the competition is set to be fiercer than ever. In this preview I will look … Continue reading