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.

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.

Lions roar against lacklustre Poland

M’Baye Niang re-entered the field of play with nearly every player on both sides in Poland’s attacking half. The Senegalese striker had left the field after landing awkwardly in an aerial duel with Jan Bednarek, and he had just received clearance to return to the fray from Bahraini referee Nawaf Shukralla. On its own, the decision to allow him to return was the kind of call that is made every day. On this day, however, his return coincided with an inexplicable backwards heave from Grzegorz Krychowiak which caught everyone off guard. Niang pounced. He took a touch to evade the foolish charge of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and had no competition as he stroked the ball into an open net. The protests had started even before the goal was scored, but they fell on deaf ears. With the Lions of Teranga already leading by a goal, Niang’s stroke of good fortune was ultimately enough to seal a historic victory.

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M’Baye Niang (left) beats Łukasz Piszczek shortly before Senegal opened the scoring. Niang’s win, and subsequent run into the attacking third, was the catalyst for the goal.

In terms of World Cup upsets, Senegal are now repeat offenders. Back in 2002, their only previous World Cup appearance, they shocked the French on the tournament’s opening day, and against a well-rounded Polish side they were looking to do it again. The game started openly, with both sides looking to play the ball quickly, but there were few clear-cut chances despite the pace of the game. Neither side quite showed the requisite composure within the final third, with neither side recording a shot on target in the first half hour. M’Baye Niang missed a particularly good chance after Youssouf Sabaly beat one opponent and played an incisive pass through the Polish defence, only for Niang to take an ultimately inaccurate shot instead of passing to a wide open Mame Biram Diouf. Soon after, Kamil Grosicki missed a golden opportunity to head home from fairly close range, and it seemed like the chances would begin to flow. They didn’t. Instead, it was the attacking errors that began to add up as the game progressed, with the play often very ugly.

Then, almost out of nowhere, Senegal took the lead via a very unfortunate deflection. There had been signs that the pace of the game was beginning to lift as the first half drew to a close, but neither side had really looked like finding the back of the net. It was an innocuous piece of play which started it. Niang outmuscled Łukasz Piszczek on the halfway line, and immediately burst into space. He found Sadio Mané near the edge of the penalty area, and the dynamic Senegalese star took a slight pause before honouring Idrissa Gueye’s forward run from midfield. Poland were scrambling to get back, and Gueye’s originally off-target shot hit Thiago Cionek in mid stride as the centre-back ran towards the goal. Wojciech Szczęsny was already committed, and didn’t stand a chance as the ball drastically changed direction.

Robert Lewandowski had been shut down by Kalidou Koulibaly and Salif Sané in the first half, but he appeared to come to life early in the second. With a good touch he breezed past Koulibaly, and was only stopped by Sané’s professional foul just outside the box. The Polish captain took the resultant free-kick and forced Khadim N’Diaye into making a full-length diving saved, and it seemed like he had found his best form. He didn’t produce anything similar for the rest of the match. Niang capitalised on Poland’s catastrophic lapse a few minutes later, and the game as a contest seemed over. Poland continued to fight, but none of their efforts seemed to come to anything. Then, with less than five minutes of normal time remaining, Krychowiak stepped up to head home Grosicki’s perfectly delivered free-kick. It presented Poland with a potential lifeline, a chance to salvage something from the wreck of their underwhelming effort against a well-organised Senegalese defence.

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The Senegalese fans in the crowd in action during the match. The crowd was dominated by Polish fans, but Senegal’s supporters still managed to make themselves heard.

The goal ensured that Senegal had to endure some nervous moments, but Poland’s charge was too little and too late. As the final whistle went, the players and the small but vocal section of Senegalese fans in the Otkritie Stadium could finally celebrate. On this day, against a disappointing Polish side who will expect better for the rest of the tournament, Senegal showed flair and solidity. On this day, the tactically astute Adam Nawałka was thoroughly outcoached by Senegal’s dreadlocked manager, 2002 captain Aliou Cissé. On this day, Senegal took another big scalp, although it’s hard to tell if we should keep calling them upsets.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Poland 1 (Krychowiak 86)
Senegal 2 (Cionek 37 og, Niang 60)
Referee: Nawaf Shukralla (Bah)
Poland (4-2-3-1): Szczęsny – Piszczek (Bereszyński 83), Cionek, Pazdan, Rybus; Krychowiak, Zieliński; Błaszczykowski (Bednarek 46), Milik (Kownacki 73), Grosicki; Lewandowski.
Senegal (4-4-2): K N’Diaye – Wagué, Sané, Koulibaly, Sabaly; Sarr, A N’Diaye, Gueye, Mané; Diouf (N’Doye 62), Niang (Konaté 75).

Top 5
1. M’Baye Niang (Senegal)
Niang wreaked havoc throughout with his devastating pace and his imposing physical presence. He played a key role in both goals, outmuscling Piszczek to set up the first and scoring the second himself after a fortuitous piece of timing. He got into good positions, and looked like Senegal’s most dangerous attacker.
2. Salif Sané (Senegal)
Sané was the tallest man on the field, and he took advantage of his immense size and his remarkable athleticism to dominate in the box. His combination with Koulibaly was very effective in nullifying the influence of Polish star Lewandowski, and he could be in for a big tournament.
3. Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)
There was very little to split the performances of Koulibaly and Sané on the day, and Koulibaly was just as important as his slightly taller partner in keeping Poland at bay. He played a key role in shutting down Poland’s biggest stars, and was just as hard to beat as Sané.
4. Michał Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan, at his consistent best, was one of few highlights in an otherwise disappointing Polish display. He performed well at the back, staving off some dangerous attacks and acquitting himself very well against Senegal’s very pacey forward line. In the absence of regular defensive partner Kamil Glik he more than held his own.
5. Khadim N’Diaye (Senegal)
N’Diaye put in a commanding second half performance to see Senegal over the line, complete with a series of aggressive aerial claims in the latter stages of the victory. His athletic save to deny a well-struck Lewandowski free-kick was a particular highlight, and his strong performance is a good sign for the Lions of Teranga.

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

Portugal progress after early scare

Ricardo Quaresma stepped up to take his penalty. Jakub Blaszczykowski had just missed, and he had the chance to send Portugal into the semi-finals then and there. It had been a dramatic night in Marseille, with Robert Lewandowski scoring the first goal inside five minutes to give Poland the lead before Portuguese young gun Renato Sanches scored just after the half-hour mark to level. The game had stayed that way to the end of normal time and throughout extra time, and in the end penalties were needed to separate the teams.

After 13 goals in qualifying Lewandowski had been very quiet in the tournament itself, and he had gone for four matches without scoring. He was not going to let that drought extend for another game, however, and he had put Poland ahead within two minutes. The two sides were both settling into the game, and the goal came out of the blue. It started with an innocuous cross-field ball from Lukasz Piszczek, which was intended for Kamil Grosicki but fell short. It found Grosicki anyway, as the ball bounced over Cedric, who had left Grosicki to cut out the pass. Lewandowski drifted away from Pepe, and his one-time finish from Grosicki’s cross left Rui Patricio helpless as it found the back of the net.

The goal changed the game and put the onus on the Portuguese to attack, but they kept turning the ball over in the final third. Poland had plenty of chances on the break, and the combination of Arkadiusz Milik and Lewandowski looked dangerous. Lewandowski was heavily involved, and he showed some of his class when he outmuscled Pepe on the edge of the box to get to Milik’s low cross. He found space to shoot, but he had been forced onto a tight angle and his shot was straight at Patricio. Portugal were trying to get Ronaldo involved in the game, but the Portuguese captain looked rushed and was bungling great opportunities. He found space when he beat a nervy Michal Pazdan on the edge of the box, but he shot from further out than he had to and the shot was comfortably saved by Lukasz Fabianski. He should have received a penalty moments later when Pazdan knocked him over as the pair competed for the ball, but referee Felix Brych waved play on, ignoring the obvious foul. Then Sanches scored, and Portugal had their equaliser.

It was a beautiful goal, a strike from range which took a slight deflection and left Fabianski helpless. Sanches played a nice pass into the box towards Nani, who played the ball back outside the box to the 18 year-old. Sanches was closed off immediately, but Grzegorz Krychowiak could only manage a small deflection and the long shot evaded Fabianski’s full length dive. Portugal had the supremacy, but for all their dominance of possession they continued to break down in attack. Half-time came, and it was still level.

The second half was all about Ronaldo. He was very active in the game and was finding some excellent chances, but he could not convert. He looked rushed and off his game. He made his way into a dangerous position in an attempt to receive a cross, but Fabianski came off his line to make the save. Nani set him up perfectly for a cross, but he shot instead and the ball ended up in the side netting. Nani’s cross to the centre was perfect, but the Portuguese captain was unable to hit it and it rolled off the back of his heel to the edge of the box. Poland had excellent chances as well, and they were more effective in attack, but it didn’t really matter as the Portuguese were in control of the game. Pepe burst out of defence to stop a Polish counter-attack and he played an excellent ball in the direction of Ronaldo. Artur Jedrzejczyk stopped the attack, but he nearly conceded an own goal as his sliding interception rolled past the goals. Ronaldo had another huge opportunity when he received a perfect ball from Joao Moutinho, but he took an air swing and allowed Fabianski to make an easy save.

Quaresma stepped back and eased the ball high into the right hand side of the net. Fabianski had gone the wrong way, and Portugal were able to celebrate. Ronaldo had failed to convert the best opportunity of extra time when he found a cross in a brilliant position and could not control it. From that point on, the most noteworthy incident was the momentary hold-up of play when a lone spectator charged onto the field, with security in hot pursuit. The game was destined for penalties, and the sides traded blows before Blaszczykowski’s miss. The former Polish captain stuttered slightly before taking the kick, but he failed to fool Patricio and the penalty was saved. Quaresma netted the winner and Portugal progressed to the semi-finals, looking nervous but getting the job done.

Marseille – Stade Velodrome
Poland 1 (Lewandowski 2)
Portugal 1 (Renato Sanches 33) (a.e.t, Portugal won 5-3 on penalties)
Referee: Felix Brych (Ger)

Poland (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Maczynski (Jodlowiec 98), Grosicki (Kapustka 82); Milik, Lewandowski.
Portugal (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Eliseu; William Carvalho (Danilo 96); Joao Mario (Quaresma 80), Renato Sanches, Adrien Silva (Joao Moutinho 74); Nani, Ronaldo.

Top 5
1. Pepe (Portugal)
Pepe was at his best, marshalling the Portuguese defence and getting into excellent positions. He struggled on a couple of occasions against Lewandowski, but he was solid at the back and did not look like allowing Poland through for a second goal. His distribution was good and he was a strong presence when he went forward for set pieces.
2. Kamil Glik (Poland)
Glik was excellent, blocking Portugal from getting through multiple times. He was able to block plenty of crosses and he provided a calmness in defence which his teammates did not. He controlled the ball well when Poland needed to take the heat out of the game, and he showed all of experience in taking the game to a shoot-out.
3. Renato Sanches (Portugal)
Sanches was excellent in the centre of midfield, scoring Portugal’s only goal and showing maturity beyond his years. He was the most dangerous player on the field when he had the ball at his feet, and he put plenty of pressure on the Polish defence. His goal was excellent, both for the finish and for the interplay that set it up.
4. Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Lewandowski was under pressure to perform, and he was Poland’s most dangerous player in attack. He finished well from a tough position to put Poland in front, and his effort was flawless throughout. He chased the ball well and was a massive threat for the Portuguese when he found space on the break. He played well, and capped off an excellent game by slotting his penalty home.
5. William Carvalho (Portugal)
Carvalho was the rock at the heart of the Portuguese midfield, and he worked very hard to ensure Portugal were on top in the middle. He cut off plenty of Polish attacks, and while he was unable to hurt going the other way he was clinical in his ball use and he found good options. He will be suspended for the semi-final after picking up a booking, but he can take comfort from the fact that he was a key reason for Portugal’s progression.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Poland vs Portugal

Poland vs Portugal, Stade Velodrome, Marseille


Match Log

Poland

Poland 1 (Milik 51), Northern Ireland 0
Germany 0, Poland 0
Ukraine 0, Poland 1 (Blaszczykowski 54)
Switzerland 1 (Shaqiri 82), Poland 1 (Blaszczykowski 39) (a.e.t, Poland won 5-4 on penalties)

Portugal

Portugal 1 (Nani 31), Iceland 1 (B Bjarnason 50)
Portugal 0, Austria 0
Hungary 3 (Gera 19, Dzsudzsak 47, 55), Portugal 3 (Nani 42, Ronaldo 50, 62)
Croatia 0, Portugal 1 (Quaresma 117) (a.e.t)

Top Scorers

Poland

2 – Jakub Blaszczykowski
1 – Arkadiusz Milik

Portugal

2 – Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo
1 – Ricardo Quaresma

Team News

Poland

Wojciech Szczesny continues to be troubled by his thigh and is set to miss a fourth consecutive match with the injury, allowing Lukasz Fabianski another chance to sew up his spot in the side. Questions surround the form of Arkadiusz Milik, but he is the only option Poland have and should retain his place alongside Robert Lewandowski.
Likely team (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Maczynski, Grosicki; Milik, Lewandowski.

Portugal

Renato Sanches will be hoping to start after showing plenty of class in the win over Croatia, and Ricardo Quaresma will be hoping that his goal against the Croats is enough to earn him a spot in the starting line-up. Vierinha was dropped for the last game and will look for a recall, but Cedric put in a solid performance in the round of 16 and should keep his spot at right back.
Likely team (4-4-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; Joao Mario, Renato Sanches, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva; Nani, Ronaldo.

Keys to success

Poland

Lewandowski put in his strongest performance yet against Switzerland in the round of 16, but the Polish captain was still kept very quiet and needs to break the shackles if Poland are to continue much further in this tournament. The defence has been strong throughout, and it speaks volumes that the only goal they have conceded on their way to the last eight was an unstoppable bicycle kick. The midfield has been able to provide plenty of opportunities for the forwards throughout the tournament, and they will look to do so again.

Portugal

Portugal put in a very poor attacking performance against Croatia, and while they were solid at the back they could not take advantage of the strong positions they found themselves in. They will need to use the ball better against the Polish, who have a frugal defence and will give nothing away. They will also look to involve Cristiano Ronaldo, who was virtually invisible against Croatia and needs to improve.

Prediction

The Portuguese were not in top form against Croatia, and their inability to break through in attack could prove costly. Poland have a solid base and will be a real test for the Portuguese, who will need to step up. Ronaldo and Lewandowski are top-quality players who have failed to make a real impact at this tournament, and if either steps up in this one they can lead their side to victory. Poland 1-0.

Stay tuned over the coming days for previews of the remaining quarter-final match-ups, as well as match reports on the games that have been played. The tournament is heating up, and I will aim to keep you up to date with everything that is happening.

Poland hold nerve in shootout after Shaqiri stunner

A masterful performance from Xherdan Shaqiri was not enough for Switzerland as they dropped out of Euro 2016 after losing to Poland on penalties in Saint-Etienne. The Polish looked headed for a certain victory, but Shaqiri scored the best goal of the tournament so far to grab a late equaliser. Extra time was inevitable, and after 30 added minutes the game was decided by penalties. Granit Xhaka’s horrendous miss proved costly as Poland held their nerve to win 5-4 on penalties, with Grzegorz Krychowiak netting the winner.

The game started poorly for the Swiss, and Arkadiusz Milik should have scored in the first minute when Johan Djourou’s weak back pass was nearly intercepted by Robert Lewandowski. Yann Sommer slid in to clear the ball, but he found Milik who missed with no goalkeeper to beat. Milik had another chance with a header moments later, but his attempt was saved by Sommer. After a nervy start the Swiss managed to find their way into the game thanks to Shaqiri, who had been given positional freedom and was roaming around wherever he thought he could create the most trouble for Poland. The game was an arm wrestle, with both teams playing well and neither side looking like breaking the deadlock despite the openness of the game. Great chances went begging for the Polish, with Krychowiak, Kamil Grosicki and Milik all missing the target after finding themselves in quality scoring positions. Fabian Schar had a chance with a header for the Swiss, but it was aimed straight at Lukasz Fabianski and was comfortably gathered.

Then came the goal. It came on the break after Fabianski had to make an excellent save to deny Blerim Dzemaili, whose shot took a deflection from Michal Pazdan on the way through. The resultant corner saw Djourou get an opportunity with a header from the back post, but Fabianski was able to take it. Then Poland broke. Fabianski threw the ball a long way to find Grosicki, who did not have many markers to deal with but did not have support either. Grosicki had played a great game, and Valon Behrami was paralysed as the Polish winger ran towards him. Grosicki drove him into the box, and then kicked it at his feet. The ball bounced off Behrami, and Grosicki drew two more defenders when he collected it again. Milik was lined up against Ricardo Rodriguez, and he let Grosicki’s cross fly over the back to Jakub Blaszczykowski, who had no marker. Sommer was in position, but the ball went through his legs and into the back of the net.

The first half ended rather uneventfully, but the Swiss sprang to life after the break. Shaqiri found space behind Poland’s defence less than a minute after the interval, but his pass back inside couldn’t find a teammate. Shaqiri had an attempt from range, but Fabianski was there. Switzerland were on top, but Poland could still find chances on the counter-attack. Sommer had to make an excellent save to deny Blaszczykowski, and Poland still looked a threat when they spread forward quickly. The Swiss could get the ball into plenty of dangerous positions, but Fabianski and his defence were up to the test. Rodriguez came close when he curled his free kick into the top corner, but Fabianski was able to react quickly to tap the ball away. Djourou had his shot blocked, and Haris Seferovic should have scored when the follow up came to him. He hit the bar.

Then came Shaqiri’s goal. Stephan Lichtsteiner had the ball on the left, and he put in a cross towards Seferovic. The striker flicked it back for Eren Derdiyok, who chested it out towards the edge of the penalty area. Shaqiri ran after it, and put a perfect bicycle kick into the bottom corner. Fabianski didn’t have a chance as the ball hit the post and bounced in. It was an incredible goal, and it was well-deserved after a supreme performance. Even still, the job wasn’t done yet. Switzerland had the momentum, and they kept pushing. They worked hard until the end of normal time, but they couldn’t win it. Shaqiri created some great chances in extra time, but they couldn’t win it. It was down to spot kicks.

Lichtsteiner scored, and so did Lewandowski. Then Granit Xhaka stepped up. The new Arsenal recruit stepped back, and with his left foot he blasted it wide. Fabianski was in the other corner, and would not have had a chance had Xhaka hit the target. He didn’t, and Poland slotted penalty after penalty past Sommer to win it, Krychowiak putting the winner into the top corner.

Saint-Etienne – Stade Geoffroy-Guichard
Switzerland 1 (Shaqiri 82)
Poland 1 (Blaszczykowski 39) (a.e.t., Poland won 5-4 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schar, Djourou, Rodriguez; Behrami (Fernandes 77), Xhaka; Shaqiri, Dzemaili (Embolo 58), Mehmedi (Derdiyok 70); Seferovic.
Poland (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Maczynski (Jodlowiec 101), Grosicki (Peszko 104); Milik, Lewandowski.

Top 5
1. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri was at the top of his game, playing with plenty of freedom and causing huge issues for the Polish defence. His goal was the best this tournament has seen so far, and it was a fitting reward for what was a masterful performance. He showed all of his skill and class, and he was the main reason Switzerland were able to take the game to penalties.
2. Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
Grosicki was the best player on the field in the first half, and he was able to create plenty of chances for the Polish strikers. He set up Blaszczykowski for Poland’s only goal, and his ability to put in precise crosses from the left wing created big issues for the Swiss centre backs. He didn’t have as much of the ball in the second half, but he had a good game and is in good touch.
3. Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland)
Rodriguez was fairly solid at left back, and while it was his man who scored for Poland the goal was as a result of an undermanned defence rather than any mistakes. His work in the second half with the game on the line was brilliant, and he should have scored with a well-placed free kick which would have found the top corner but for a brilliant save.
4. Lukasz Fabianski (Poland)
Fabianski had a great game in goal, making some excellent saves and coming off his line well to claim the ball on multiple occasions. He did concede to an incredible goal from Shaqiri, but he was solid and mostly withstood the Swiss barrage in the second half. He had a good game and he was one of the key reasons for Poland’s success.
5. Michal Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan was solid as ever at the heart of the Polish defence, and he constantly denied the Swiss as they looked to level in the second half. He was able to intercept plenty of Swiss crosses before they found the target, and his tackling was excellent in spite of a booking picked up in extra time. He played well and should continue to be a rock in the Polish defence for the rest of the tournament.

UEFA Euro 2016 Knockout Stage Preview – Switzerland vs Poland

The group stage has finished, and Euro 2016 is coming to a head as we get closer to determining who will lift the trophy. As such, I will be posting detailed previews of every match for the rest of the tournament, including team news, past form and the key factors that will decide each game. Enjoy.

Switzerland vs Poland, Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne


Match Log

Switzerland

Albania 0, Switzerland 1 (Schar 5)
Romania 1 (Stancu 18 pen), Switzerland 1 (Mehmedi 57)
Switzerland 0, France 0

Poland

Poland 1 (Milik 51), Northern Ireland 0
Germany 0, Poland 0
Ukraine 0, Poland 1 (Blaszczykowski 54)

Team News

Switzerland

The Swiss did not change their team much throughout the group stage, and the only selection headache that looms for Vladimir Petkovic surrounds the attack. Breel Embolo is expected to retain his place over Haris Seferovic, but the spot is still up for grabs.
Likely team (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schar, Djourou, Rodriguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Dzemaili, Mehmedi; Embolo.

Poland

Wojciech Szczesny is still suffering from the thigh injury he picked up against Northern Ireland, and he will miss a third consecutive match. Lukasz Fabianski will continue to replace him in goal, and will be aiming for a third consecutive clean sheet when he takes the field. Jakub Blaszczykowski was Poland’s sole scorer in their final match, and he should return to the starting line-up along with Lukasz Piszczek, Kamil Grosicki and Krzysztof Maczynski.
Likely team (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Maczynski, Grosicki; Milik, Lewandowski.

Keys to success

Switzerland

The Swiss defence has been solid throughout, and it will need to hold firm against a star-studded Polish attack. Up front, they need to find some inspiration, and they will need to find something fast to beat a defence which has not yet conceded in this tournament. Petkovic will be looking for Granit Xhaka, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami to dominate the Polish in the middle, and will look to keep the ball away from the dangerous Robert Lewandowski.

Poland

Lewandowski is arguably the best striker at the Euros, but he has been heavily marked throughout and has failed to score in three games. His inability to find the back of the net is the main cause of Poland’s disappointing goal tally, and the Polish are relying on him finding his form in this game. The extra treatment Lewandowski has received has led to plenty of excellent opportunities for Arkadiusz Milik, and he needs to start taking his chances.

Prediction

The game will probably be played on Poland’s terms, and with the incredible quality of Lewandowski and Milik up front it is hard to see them losing. The Swiss are solid defensively, and could definitely hold out for a draw, but their lack of potency up front will be a serious problem. Poland 1-0.

World champions matched in scoreless draw

Germany and Poland have played out the first goalless draw of Euro 2016 at the Stade de France, as neither side could break the deadlock despite some golden opportunities. Arkadiusz Milik came closest to scoring just after half time when he missed the target with an open, close-range header, while Germany dominated possession and territory and had plenty of chances. The first half was lifeless, and while Mario Gotze could have scored with a header and Toni Kroos had a brilliant chance inside the area neither side really looked like hitting the scoresheet. The game was devoid of energy, and while Poland were sitting back in defence the Germans never looked like penetrating their solid formation.

Even still, Poland needed to show some more flair in the second half, and Milik had the best chance of the game less than a minute after play resumed. Kamil Grosicki made a good run down the right wing, and his cross travelled across the German goalmouth into a dangerous position. Manuel Neuer was out of the equation, and Milik only needed to get his head to a good cross to put the chance away. He could only manage a glancing blow, and Germany received a massive let-off. The missed opportunity breathed new life into the game, and shortly afterwards Gotze had a chance when he found the ball inside the box. He was closed down well by Michal Pazdan, and Lukasz Fabianski could make an easy save. Milik had another shot after Robert Lewandowski played a close range free kick in his direction. He missed the target with his attempt, but he may have caught Neuer out of position had he found the bottom corner. Lewandowski went one-on-one seconds later, but Jerome Boateng was able to slide in late and block the shot.

Poland were pushing hard, but the game was still on fairly equal terms. Grosicki found Milik in the box, but the Ajax forward could not connect properly with the ball, missing yet another brilliant chance. Germany pushed back, and Mesut Ozil made better use of his opportunities when presented with a similar chance at the other end. His shot was dangerous, and Fabianski did well to tip it over the bar. The Germans took back the initiative, but excellent attacking positions were not enough for them. Andre Schurrle, Kroos, Thomas Muller and Benedikt Howedes all missed good chances, and Germany were unable to make the most of dominance in possession. Grosicki’s free kick came incredibly close as it travelled just over the bar, and no player would come closer for the rest of the match.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
Germany 0
Poland 0
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Ned)

Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer – Howedes, Boateng, Hummels, Hector; Kroos, Khedira; Muller, Ozil, Draxler (Gomez 72); Gotze (Schurrle 66).
Poland (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski (Kapustka 80), Krychowiak, Maczynski (Jodlowiec 76), Grosicki (Peszko 87); Milik, Lewandowski.

Top 5
1. Mats Hummels (Germany)
Hummels was the sole change made to the German side as he made his return from injury, and he showed very positive signs. His work curbing the influence of Robert Lewandowski was excellent throughout, and he was able to cut off a lot of Poland’s attacks before they were able to reach the final third. He was at the top of his game and he looks to be in good touch.
2. Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
Grosicki created the best chance of the game with his cross to Milik just after half time, and he continued to cause problems before he was replaced with three minutes to go. He was able to play from both the left and the right, and aside from setting up some great opportunities he nearly scored late with a free kick. He could have easily been a match winner, and his class shone through.
3. Michal Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan was excellent at the back for the Polish, and his work cutting off German attacks was crucial. He made several key stops on the edge of the box, and he played a big role in ensuring that Mario Gotze did not score when presented with a wonderful opportunity. He was strong defensively, and will take plenty of confidence from his performance.
4. Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Ozil struggled to get himself into the match early, but as others on the field began to tire he became a massive problem for Poland. He created plenty of chances for the German forwards, and came agonisingly close to scoring himself when his shot from the top of the area was well-saved by Lukasz Fabianski. He looked like a big threat, and was the biggest problem for the Polish defence.
5. Toni Kroos (Germany)
Kroos was in control in the centre of midfield, and his ability to win and maintain possession of the ball was one of the main reasons for Germany’s dominance of possession throughout. He had some very good chances, and was unlucky to miss the goals after being played through by Muller. He had a strong game, and showed excellent form.