For the true casual fan....Quick-twitch bits and opinions on the 32 teams, if you accidentally stumble upon soccer while watching TV this month! GROUP H edition.
SENEGAL: Senegal has only been to one other World Cup, 2002, where they made a dream run to the quarterfinals. This is now their second appearance. On the front end, I would say that you shouldn't expect them to make another run. But they aren't limping in without talent. Two guys that I like: Striker Sadio Mane and midfielder Idrissa Gueye. Mane is an absolute stud up top and will force the issue in every match. In the 2018 Champions League Final where his club, Liverpool, were ultimately overmatched...he scored what was the equalizing goal and had a tremendous performance. It's not his fault that Gareth Bale came on as a substitute and scored twice to give Madrid another title. Gueye is one of the highlights in the midfield for Premier League squad Everton, and will be a consistent playmaker for his country while in Russia. I believe they outclass a Japanese team that lacks elite fitness and skill, but will struggle with Poland and Colombia.
JAPAN: It is my opinion that qualifying for the World Cup in Asian is about as easy as it gets. Which is why South Korea are in their 9th straight World Cup, and Japan is in its 6th straight. It's not because they're contenders by any means. It's because the depth of quality isn't there (you could say the exact same thing about USA & qualifying, hence the utter embarrassment and pathetic state of affairs on missing out on Russia). Keisuke Honda is their mainstay attacker. He failed miserably with Milan in Italy, now plays for Pachuca in Mexico, but will be relied upon to create and finish for Japan. Maya Yoshida plays for Southampton in England and is the centerback rock for the Japanese defense. Genki Haraguchi will be another option in the attack. Their best opportunity for points will come from the match with Senegal. If either Colombia or Poland draw/lose to this team, it will be a massive upset.
POLAND: I keep hearing about how highly touted Poland is. So highly touted they failed to qualify for the previous two World Cups. Robert Lewandowski is the name to know. He is a show-stopping talent. Once, as his club Bayern Munich were trailing 1-0 at half to ratty Wolfsburg, Lewandowski came on as a sub and scored 5 GOALS IN 9 MINUTES!!!! He's incredible. And he scored 16 in qualifying for Poland. I would like them to have Karol Linetty and Piotr Zielinski as pace-setters and using their speed to create chances for themselves...or mostly Lewandowski. Just let him do the heavy lifting, fellas. My favorite player ever is Italian goalkeeper Gigi Buffon...his backup was Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny. He's a stud and keeps Poland in any match. From a ranking perspective, they're the favorite. They should win 2 of the 3 matches, and flip a coin with Colombia.
COLOMBIA: Much like Poland, there's a ton of respect for this team, but they've had trouble just qualifying for World Cups over the last 20 years. But they're set to build on a quarterfinal run in 2014. Many believe the best player in the 2014 tournament was James Rodriguez and I can't disagree. He was the top goal scorer and vaulted himself onto the international scene. He was a fairly reliable scorer at Real Madrid, but not enough as he was sent on loan to Bayern Munich where he has been since 2017. He hasn't evolved into the elite of the elite, but he's probably still the spark plug for Colombia. Radamel Falcao is the veteran bigtimer that has lit up France with his club Monaco for years. Curious to see how they use the two players...start one up top, the other starts on the bench, get them both on the field? We'll find out this morning against Japan. Ospina in net will be relied upon to make some massive saves for Colombia in this tourney and I think he's up to the challenge.
***I'm flipping a coin on either Poland or Colombia to WIN the group. I'll go with Colombia first, Poland the Runner Up....BOTH of these teams have the ability to make a run, and also flop on their faces.