Mina – and fair play points – break Senegalese hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Liverpool rally for comeback win

The ball trailed across the Liverpool penalty area, leaving Modou Barrow with a simple job to do: clear it. For eighty minutes of the match momentum had swung both ways, but for now Swansea City and Liverpool were level, and a draw was looking like a fair outcome.

Swansea had a point to prove in front of their home fans, and they burst out of the blocks with energy and skill. Borja Baston, making his first start in the Premier League, found space for a header from the edge of the six-yard box, but his effort went wide. The Swans were turning up the heat from the outset, and Liverpool were struggling to cope.

The goal came within ten minutes, Leroy Fer capitalising on some poor defence to tap the ball into the back of the net. Gylfi Sigurdsson whipped in a corner, and after Baston headed it down Mike van der Hoorn was there to flick it on. The flick-on was destined for the back of the net, but Fer made sure of it with a very simple finish.

The clearance was straightforward, but Barrow still bungled it. The ball went straight up, flying into the Swansea sky and dropping back down again. Angel Rangel was quick to spot the danger, and he managed to work his way into a good position as he jostled with Roberto Firmino. He was in control, and looked as if he could handle the situation.

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Last-ditch: Jordi Amat (in white) makes a strong challenge to deny Sadio Mane.

Liverpool tried to get themselves back into the game, but they could not find their rhythm. Nothing was going quite right for them, and an injury to an in-form Adam Lallana only set them back further. Farce ensued as the substitute was not yet ready, and Daniel Sturridge was finally introduced minutes after Lallana had left the pitch. It just seemed as if nothing was going right for Liverpool.

The ball landed in front of Rangel, and his control evaporated as soon as it did. It bounced towards the goals, leaving Rangel desperate to get the ball out of defence as soon as possible. Firmino was still lurking, and the Brazilian managed to get in front of his man, through on goal.

Liverpool gained more possession as the first half drew to a close, but most of their passes and shots were cut out, and they generally looked clunky. Sadio Mane looked like a massive threat when he cut in behind, but he was a rare example in an otherwise disappointing showing. As the first half drew to a close Sturridge received a booking for diving after throwing himself to the ground in the box. Swansea were conceding possession, but Liverpool looked like a toothless tiger.

At half-time, however, something clicked. Liverpool played with more purpose, and suddenly it did not look as if the Swans could weather the storm. Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner were pushing forward to good effect, and the Reds just looked more dangerous as they unlocked holes in Swansea’s defence.

Firmino was through on goal, having turned Rangel with incredible ease. Fabianski was waiting to deal with the situation, but Rangel had to try something. He made a last-ditch attempt to win the ball back, clumsily bringing down the Brazilian in the process and leaving referee Michael Oliver with no choice. He pointed to the spot.

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Under pressure: Swansea manager Francesco Guidolin watches on.

Liverpool equalised less than ten minutes after the break. Philippe Coutinho drilled his free kick into the wall, but Jordan Henderson was there and he lifted the rebound over the top. Swansea had pushed up in unison to deal with the poor free kick, and Roberto Firmino found himself open without moving a muscle. Fabianski dived to save the header, but it evaded his clutches.

Liverpool were back on level footing, and it didn’t look as if they would be denied for much longer. Coutinho was only inches wide from the edge of the area. Kyle Naughton denied Mane from a dangerous position. Corner after corner came in, and Swansea needed a response. They worked hard, and it looked as if the Swans had taken back some of the initiative. Then Barrow bungled his clearance.

Milner was calm as he readied himself for the penalty, and there was no sign of nerves at the top of his run-up. He cruised smoothly towards the ball before driving it up the middle of the goal, well out of the reach of a diving Fabianski. The comeback was all but complete.

After the goal Liverpool attacked with renewed vigour, using the pace of Mane, Sturridge and the newly-introduced Divock Origi to open up holes in the Swansea defence. Coutinho forced an excellent reflex save from Fabianski after Origi’s cross missed Sturridge, and Jack Cork nearly scored an own goal after he slid in to block Emre Can’s dangerous ball across goal. Fabianski was there, and they survived. Swansea needed to score, but they seemed to have no chance.

Swansea had a last roll of the dice with a minute to play, when Rangel opened up a large hole in the Liverpool defence. His cross found van der Hoorn, who inexplicably missed a tap-in from point-blank range. It was a bad miss, and it ended a disappointing afternoon for the Swans. They needed to hold on, but it was not to be.

Swansea – Liberty Stadium
Swansea City 1 (Fer 8)
Liverpool 2 (Firmino 54, Milner 84 pen)
Referee: Michael Oliver

Swansea City (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Rangel, van der Hoorn, Amat, Naughton; Britton (Ki 63), Cork; Routledge (Barrow 62), Fer (Fulton 72), Sigurdsson; Baston.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Karius – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana (Sturridge 23), Henderson, Wijnaldum (Can 85); Mane, Firmino (Origi 85), Coutinho.

Top 5
1. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane was Liverpool’s most dangerous player, using his pace to find pockets of space in the Swansea defence and showing great awareness to work his way into threatening positions. He was unlucky not to score on a number of occasions after he had close-range chances blocked, and he was largely responsible for Liverpool’s ability to turn the game around.
2. Leroy Fer (Swansea City)
Fer worked very hard throughout, and he applied plenty of pressure to the Liverpool defence with his ability to force mistakes and use the ball well. He scored Swansea’s only goal with a simple tap-in, and was solid when called back to defend.
3. Jordi Amat (Swansea City)
Amat was dominant in the first half, and while his influence waned as the game progressed he was a key part of Swansea’s defensive solidity. He made a number of excellent sliding challenges to deny Liverpool, and he made a number of key blocks to keep them at bay as they looked to break through.
4. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
Firmino stepped up in the big moments, scoring Liverpool’s first goal with a calm finish and winning the penalty which led to the second. He was not great in the first half, but when he was needed he delivered, and he was a key reason for Liverpool’s win.
5. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)
Coutinho stepped up in the second half, dropping slightly deeper to fill the void left by Lallana’s injury and spraying the ball around into dangerous positions. His long shots were a constant threat for Swansea to deal with, and he was in command in the middle of the park.

Spurs salvage a point from defensive wreck

Spurs were out of the contest. For the first hour, anyway. Playing against Liverpool, who were coming off a spectacular flop against newly-promoted Burnley, things were not looking good. They were 1-0 down, not creating any chances, and being exposed time and time again in defence. An injury to Kyle Walker threw Mauricio Pochettino’s pre-match plans out the window, and in the centre of the park Victor Wanyama and Dele Alli were unable to keep the ball out of their opponent’s hands. Tottenham’s attack received no delivery, and the defence was more than a little shaky.

Eric Dier had started the match playing in central midfield, but he was moved into right back after Walker went off. Throughout the ninety minutes it was like watching Jekyll and Hyde; sometimes he was composed, most of the time he gave the ball away in very bad positions. Jan Vertonghen was not much better. He looked frazzled when he came under pressure from Senegalese winger Sadio Mane, who nearly took Spurs apart on a number of occasions with his pace in behind. Toby Alderweireld was a rock at the heart of the defence, and Michel Vorm was ensuring not many goals were scored, but those two couldn’t do everything.

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Under pressure: Eric Dier (left) is challenged by James Milner.

Liverpool, on the other hand, looked completely rejuvenated. Coming off a loss in which they had over 80 percent of possession, they had learned from their mistakes. Mane had come in for Daniel Sturridge, a player who wants to be at the heart of absolutely everything and had expressed annoyance at playing on the right wing. Mane tore Tottenham to shreds on a number of occasions, sliding in behind Danny Rose and beating Vertonghen for pace. He received good support from Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, both of whom had been out of action against Burnley, and he generally boosted everything about Liverpool’s attack. Against Burnley they had played with all the pace of a funeral procession. Now, they played with purpose, taking advantage of the extra space available and looking for more opportunities through quick ball movement.

Liverpool had a plethora of great chances in the first half as they were able to exploit the extra space in Tottenham’s defence. No longer suffocated by Burnley’s rigid defensive structure they found their niche against a side who looked to attack them back, and they had nearly opened the scoring within five minutes. Vorm made an excellent save to deny Coutinho from close range after Firmino had played him through, with a well-placed foot trapping the ball on the line and allowing the Dutch keeper to gratefully reel it in.

Mane looked most dangerous on the break, when Tottenham players lost the ball after some errant passing. Vorm was up to the test, even as Mane broke the defensive line on multiple occasions. Vorm risked being booked or even sent off more than once by coming off his line to clear the ball, but he was able to keep it level. Finally, just minutes before the break, Liverpool broke the deadlock. They scored from the spot, with a very soft penalty being awarded to Firmino after a minute clip on the heels from Erik Lamela. The contact was there, but ultimately the Brazilian fell after tripping over his own feet. Either way, the penalty stood, and James Milner was there to stroke it home.

If Pochettino was hoping that his side would recover after the break, he was very much mistaken. After a brief settling in period, the game resumed its familiar rhythm, but with a slightly different beat. Liverpool had reached their zenith, and it was in this short period just after half time that they came closest to sealing a win. Things happened very quickly for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Joel Matip brushed the bar after getting his head to Milner’s corner, and shortly afterwards Vorm had to make an excellent save to deny Nathaniel Clyne, who had marauded into the box from right back. Then came the disallowed goal.

Georginio Wijnaldum, who had been much improved due to increased time on the ball, intercepted yet another poor pass from Dier and started off down the left wing. He had plenty of support, but he kept running to the edge of the area before feeding Adam Lallana with an excellent through ball. Lallana played Mane on the near post, and the ball was promptly blasted into the back of the net. It appeared to be the death knell for Spurs, the sign that Liverpool had finally sealed the victory. But the linesman’s flag said otherwise. It was a very tight call, with Lallana in an offside position by the barest of margins, and it gave Tottenham the lifeline that they needed. Perversely, the disallowed goal acted as a turning point in the match, as Spurs sputtered into gear, albeit belatedly.

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Finish: Danny Rose (in white) levels the score.

It was Wanyama and Alli who stepped up. The solid pairing in central midfield started to cope with Liverpool’s pressure, and the attack found more of the ball and more space. Harry Kane started to pick it up in dangerous positions, and Vincent Janssen looked like a big threat. The hosts started to look like their former selves, stringing together great passing moves and creating some excellent chances. Lamela’s free kick had to be tapped over the bar by Simon Mignolet, and another top-drawer save had to be made moments later as Alderweireld got a head to Christian Eriksen’s corner. Spurs were starting to probe again, and suddenly it looked as if they could punish Liverpool for their missed opportunities. They did.

It started with a brilliant ball over the top from Alderweireld, with Milner completely misjudging it as it flew over his head to the feet of Dier. Milner was beaten again with a good touch, and while Lamela could not get a solid connection on the cross the ball fell to Rose at the back post. It was not an easy finish, but the left back made it look easy. He bundled the ball past Mignolet, and Matip, who had gone in behind to protect the line, had no chance as the shot rolled in next to the post. Liverpool looked to get an equaliser straight away, but the moment had already passed: Liverpool’s momentum was gone.

Liverpool had some chances late as the game opened up, and Alderweireld had to make an incredible challenge to deny Lallana in injury time. The Belgian was Tottenham’s last line of defence, and he risked a penalty by sliding in and blocking Lallana’s effort straight of the boot. The game trailed on, with some meaningless substitutions and a yellow card to Matip only delaying the finish as injury time drew to a close. Liverpool were the better side on the day, but they could not capitalise on the opportunities they created, and Tottenham’s porous defence did not prove costly in the end.

London – White Hart Lane
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Rose 72)
Liverpool 1 (Milner 43 pen)
Referee: Robert Madley

Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Vorm – Walker (Janssen 28), Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Wanyama; Lamela, Alli, Eriksen (Winks 90+3); Kane (Onomah 83).
Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Lallana (Stewart 90+4), Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mane (Sturridge 88), Firmino, Coutinho (Origi 69).

Top 5
1. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
Alderweireld was excellent at the heart of Tottenham’s defence, staying unfazed under heavy pressure and often covering up the defensive mistakes of his teammates. He created the goal with a pinpoint pass over the top of Liverpool’s defence, and he made a brilliant challenge to deny Lallana as the game drew to a close.
2. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
Mane made all the difference for Liverpool after coming into the side to replace Sturridge. He cut swathes through Spurs with his pace and ability to get in behind, and he was unlucky not to score. He was the most dangerous attacking player on the ground, and he will be a big threat as the season progresses.
3. Joel Matip (Liverpool)
Matip provided a much-needed solidity for Liverpool in central defence, making life very difficult for Spurs and ensuring that not much got through. He was a significant threat at set pieces, and he came very close to scoring after beating his man in the air early in the second half. He played well in his Premier League debut, and he will want the good form to continue.
4. Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur)
Rose was Tottenham’s best attacking player, and while Mane often caught him out when his teammates carelessly lost possession he was fairly solid in defence as well. He created problems for Liverpool with his ability to go forward and put in incisive crosses, and he finished with excellent precision when he was given the opportunity.
5. Michel Vorm (Tottenham Hotspur)
Vorm had less to do in the second half as Liverpool’s influence waned, but he was excellent in goal throughout and did well to only concede once. His decision making was first-rate, and he saved a number of goals by coming off his line and clearing the ball away. He will only start until Hugo Lloris comes back, but he will take comfort from his early season form.