We finish up our World Cup group previews with Group H, which looks at first glance to feature a gulf between two strong sides (Poland and Colombia) towering over a pair of less-heralded squads (Senegal and Japan). Will Poland and Colombia go through as expected, or might Senegal and/or Japan pull off a shock?
FIFA Rank: #10
Betting odds to win: 66/1 (bet365)
Manager: Adam Nawalka
2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify (this is Poland’s first World Cup since 2006)
Probable Formation: 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1
It may be a surprise to see that, following four straight appearances from 1974 through 1986, the Polish team has only made it to two World Cups (2002 & 2006) since. After all, things have been looking up in recent years. In 2016 at France, Poland put on its best ever show at the EUFA Euro competition with a quarterfinal appearance, losing on penalty kicks to Portugal who ended up taking the crown. That elevated Poland to its highest ever FIFA ranking of #5 in 2017, but the nation hasn’t quite had that breakthrough performance yet to join the truly elite teams. With once-in-a-generation-talent Lewandowski in his prime, now would be the perfect time for a return to the glory days of 1974 and 1982 when Poland took third place in the World Cup. As the core stars of the team (Lewandowski / Grosicki / Piszczek / Glik) are all 29 or older, this could be Poland’s last best shot at grandeur for a long time.
Winning its World Cup qualifying group comfortably, the Polish team unsurprisingly scored by far the most goals of any team therein (28, compared to next-best 20 from Denmark). However, its defense was suspect, actually allowing the fourth most goals (14) of the six teams! (Denmark conceded the fewest at only 8 goals.) It only lost one game out of its 10 qualifiers, but kept just three clean sheets, allowing two goals each at Kazakhstan, home to Denmark, and home to Montenegro, while allowing four at Denmark (in its lone loss, as you may have surmised). As such, we should definitely start on the offensive end when it comes to the World Cup fantasy radar for the White & Reds.
Polish Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams
Another huge reason to start on the offensive end, of course, is superstar forward Robert Lewandowski, an unstoppable goal scoring dynamo. Over the past three seasons with Bayern Munich, Lewandowski has notched 89 goals and 14 assists across 95 Bundesliga games. Meanwhile, with the national team, the sniper boasts 52 scores and 17 helpers in 93 caps, including finishing an eye-popping 16 of the team’s 28 goals in the recent set of 10 qualifying affairs, which included hat tricks home against Denmark and Romania as well as at Armenia.
Speaking of exploding, the best example would naturally be his mesmerizing, lightning quick, five goal haul as a second half substitute in a 15-minute span against VfL Wolfsburg in 2015, leaving his then-manager Pep Guardiola smilingly speechless:
There are a select few players who have made a name for themselves as the cream of the crop worldwide: Messi... Ronaldo... Neymar. Robert Lewandowski is close, but he hasn’t quite made it to that elite stage. Now he is primed to step onto the Russian World Cup stage and announce himself as a leading man who should be mentioned in the same breath as the best of the best in world football, and similarly with a single moniker: Lewandowski.
As such, the Polish sniper should be a valuable fantasy commodity, especially in the early rounds. However, he will not be as enticing as those who carry their nations through the knockout stage as well. In a team game, there is only so much one man can do. If Poland falters, it will likely be due to its Achilles’ heel on defense, not as a result of a lack of greatness from its talisman.
Beyond Lewandowski, there isn’t an awful lot left at the table but scraps in terms of scoring goals (after Lewandowski’s 16 qualifying scores, the next highest scoring player had only three). With 12 goals and 12 assists across 38 caps, fellow forward Arkadiusz Milik might be an interesting speculative punt as a cheap third striker who could benefit from all of the attention on Lewandowski. However, after suffering a spate of injuries in recent seasons, it is unclear if Milik is fit enough to be relied upon as a regular starter.
Value can be found in who will be feeding the superstar striker while chipping in with the odd goal themselves. In that respect, midfielder Kamil Grosicki (Hull) stands out, having tallied 12 goals with 17 assists in 56 career caps. Piotr Zielinski (Napoli) could also be a great option, especially if he is inexpensive, having failed to score but providing six assists in recent qualification.
Even though Poland comes in as the group favorite, and the other teams in the group may try to park the bus in order to blunt the Polish scoring machine, I still hesitate to endorse the defenders and keepers with too much enthusiasm, given their difficulty securing clean sheets against low-level qualifying competition.
The keepers, Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea) and Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus) are both good and have plied their trades in top leagues, but neither is what anybody would quite call a world class number one. (During qualification, Fabianski started seven times and Szczesny thrice, so it is not a given regarding who will get the nod for the World Cup.) If the actual starter is bargain-priced in coming in cheaper than who turns out to be the back-up, it may be worth tapping the starter as your back-up in fantasy.
Unlike most of the truly top tier national teams, none of the expected Polish starting defenders plies his trade for an elite club team. The closest would be Kamil Glik of Monaco or Lucasz Piszczek of Borussia Dortmund. Each scored once in qualifying, but Piszczek would be my pick of the duo since he added two assists whereas Glik had none.
FIFA Rank: #16
Betting odds to win: 40/1 (bet365)
Manager: Jose Pekerman
2014 World Cup Result: Quarter-finals
Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1
In case you forgot, Colombia’s James Rodriguez is good. Like, really good.
Colombia, or more specifically Bayern Munich maestro James (pronounced “Hah-mess”, not the English James, as in Bond, James Bond), will be among the most popular teams to follow in Russia. The team features a really nice combination of a superstar with top-notch World Cup bona fides (James), a beloved (except by Manchester United and Chelsea supporters) and charismatic striker in Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, and two young and highly prospective central defenders in Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina. It also features a range of players who play for top clubs in Europe and South America: Juan Cuadrado (Juventus); Luis Muriel (Sevilla); Frank Fabra (Boca Juniors); and David Ospina (Arsenal), for example.
The team has also been more or less consistent in its player selection. Many of the big performers from Brazil 2014 are back and joined by better, more dynamic and younger teammates at the back (recall in 2014 Colombia started the statue of Mario Yepes at center back). But, but, but: Despite featuring some big names including Brazil 2014 Golden Boot winner James, Colombia has struggled to score goals (21 in 18 World Cup qualifiers). While not THAT bad of a number (Argentina scored just 19 in 21), the scoring problems for Colombia are evident and, frustratingly, not easily correctable. Argentina, on the other hand, just needed to bring Messi back from self-imposed exile.
The big issue affecting scoring for Los Cafeteros is a lack of quality, pace and vision in central midfield. The duo of Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar, though highly experienced, lacks creativity and dynamis, which severely stunts the flow of the attack from back to front. In other words, James has to track all the way back to get the futbol from the defensive half to initiate attacks. Otherwise, very little happens for Colombia when trying to link the defense to the attack.
While far from the worst strategy in the world, letting James do it all does limit how far this team can go. Unfortunately for Colombia, there really isn’t anyone on the roster who can replace Sanchez and Aguilar, although there is some hope invested in Club America’s Mateus Uribe to replace the latter. Even then, it’s a slight improvement at best.
Colombian Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams
James of course — he might be the most owned player next to Messi. James is in hot form for both club and country and can score goals and create assists at will. He is essential — arguably the most essential star player for any team in the World Cup.
It’s difficult to be super keen on Colombia’s defense because David Ospina is just not that good. He’s a tad short for the position, but unlike fellow height-challenged star keeper Keylor Navas, Ospina is nowhere near as spectacular or athletic a shot stopper. If it is a relatively well placed shot, the Colombian keeper will not be able to stop it. There was a lot of talk in Colombia that the association had wanted Argentina’s Franco Armani to naturalize so that he could start in goal for Los Cafeteros in 2018. Instead, Ospina’s two backups are Colombian league veterans who pose no real threat. Were it necessary to pick a defender, Yerry Mina would be the choice over Davinson Sanchez because of his better goal-scoring track record for the national team (3 goals in just 12 caps). Take a look at the first goal shown in the video below and tell me you don’t see a James free kick connecting with Mina’s head for a golazo:
The two starting fullbacks, Frank Fabra (left) and Santiago Arias (right) are good young players who offer a mixed bag in terms of goal scoring potential; neither one has resembled Marcos Alonso for either club or country.
If you are looking for goals but opt-out of picking James, then going with Falcao in the hope that he can convert some of James’ sweet passes is not the worst strategy in the world. The wide attackers are a little unsettled and it isn’t crystal clear who will get the nod. Pekerman is a very loyal (read: risk averse) manager and will likely stick with Juan Cuadrado and Luis Muriel. Cuadrado could be a trap because he plays for Juventus but has scored just 7 goals in 70 appearances for Colombia, although he is likely your best bet for assists outside of James. Muriel converted just twice in 18 national team games.
FIFA Rank: #28
Betting odds to win: 200/1 (bet365)
Qualified via: won its CAF group (ahead of Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa)
Manager: Aliou Cisse
2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify (this is only Senegal’s second appearance ever, following 2002 when it made it to the quarterfinals under revered manager Bruno Metsu)
Probable Formation: 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1
Senegal did win its qualifying group and didn’t lose a game in the process (four wins, two draws), which is great. Wonderful. Love it. But sorry, Senegal has to be docked a bit because it only needed to beat Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa, not exactly current or even recent powers of African football.
Meanwhile, taking a survey of other CAF groups, Morocco came out ahead of Ivory Coast, Nigeria bested Cameroon and Algeria, and Egypt dispatched Ghana. Senegal is one of the less-tested African teams (along with Tunisia), and while that certainly does not mean The Lions of Teranga cannot pull off a top-two finish in their World Cup group, it just would make getting through seem more of a surprise at first glance.
Senegalese Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams
However, Senegal does boast a wealth of talent that will be familiar to European fans, particularly in the Premier League. That list is headlined by winger Sadio Mane, who has scored 10+ goals in each of his four Premier League seasons (with Liverpool and Southampton) as well as his two Bundesliga campaigns (RB Salzburg) prior to that. He has been a major contributor for the national team as well, with 13 goals and 13 assists across 46 caps. Those who had Mane going in their Champions League fantasy sides when the Reds took on the Blue & Whites were certainly loving life!
Mane has plenty of quality players around him, including Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke) and Moussa Sow (Bursaspor) at forward. You’d have to be blood-related to Diouf to put him in your fantasy team, while Sow could theoretically be an interesting punt at third forward; after all, he scored 25 Ligue 1 goals back in 2010-11 with Lille, and actually has scored more goals (16) internationally than Mane in the same number of appearances. However, it’s unclear if he’ll actually be used as a regular starter. Cisse may prefer to adopt a more defensive-minded line-up at times, depending on the match-up, or simply go with more youthful, energetic legs.
Expecting clean sheets from the back line may be too much to ask, but defender Kara Mbojdi (Anderlecht) is worth a passing mention, as he has netted four goals in 37 international appearances. Kalidou Koulibaly hasn’t cracked the net for the national side, but did score five times in Serie A for Napoli last season.
FIFA Rank: #60
Betting odds to win: 300/1 (bet365)
Manager: Akira Nishino
Probable Formation: 4-3-3 or 3-4-2-1
Japan will point to somewhat recent history for its hope here. This is the sixth straight World Cup appearance by the Samurai Blue, and they actually punched a ticket through to the knockout stage both in 2002 (as co-host) and 2010.
Japan can also nod at winning its qualifying group. However, things were awfully tight, with Saudia Arabia and Australia finishing only one point off the pace. Similarly, Japan’s offense tied Saudi Arabia with the most goals (17), only one more than Australia. Over in the other AFC group, Iran’s defense was actually the cream of the crop, conceding by far the fewest goals in the region. Simply put, Japan did what it had to do, but did not establish itself as any sort of regional power. And when it comes to taking on even tertiary teams from deeper confederations, that’s probably not going to cut it.
Japanese Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams
Japan is a veteran side, featuring seven players with at least 80 caps, three with 25+ goals. Up front, forward Shinji Okazaki (Leicester) has 50 goals plus 13 assists in 112 caps, but confidence will not be high as he managed only one goal and one assist in his past eight qualifiers.
You would think that the midfield duo of Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) and Keisuke Honda (Pachuca of Liga MX) might be attractive avenue for fantasy fun. Kagawa has 29 goals and 18 assists from 90 caps, but slumped to one goal with no assists in the final six qualifiers, while suffering injury problems the past two seasons with Borussia Dortmund. Honda boasts a better ledger with 36 scores and 24 helpers in 94 caps, but continuing the theme, faded with no goals and two assists across his most recent eight qualifying appearances.
So who the heck is scoring for Japan? Well, midfielder Genki Haraguchi (Fortuna Dusseldorf) led the team with four goals in qualifying, but again, he slumped toward the end, as those goals all came in the first five games. As well, Haraguchi has scored a total of only four goals across the past three seasons in Germany, so it would be crazy to count on him to do too much at the World Cup. Aside from Haraguchi, nobody else had more than two scores in qualifying. That type of scoring balance is great in real life, but in fantasy... not so much, especially when it doesn’t even add up to all that many goals.
There aren’t many defenders who can lay claim to scoring 10 international goals like Maya Yoshida (Southampton), but it has taken him 81 games to get there, so don't get too carried away, especially since clean sheets could be extremely difficult to come by.
Oh, and have you heard about the managerial situation? Vahid Halilhodzic qualified the team for the World Cup, but he was sacked in April following an unsuccessful shake-up attempt at transitioning away from the veteran players in favor of a youth movement. Thus, Akira Nishino took over just two months ago, turning back to the old guard. But rather than things calming down smoothly and everybody coming together, the turmoil has only intensified, with Halihodzic suing the Japanese football association over his termination.
So, um, yeah... as the cop standing by the yellow tape surrounding a crime scene says, “Keep on moving, folks, nothing to see here.”
THE FINAL VERDICT
Given a cursory eyeball at the outset, this may have appeared to be a question of who among Poland and Colombia would finish first, and who would take second. However, delving deeper into things, this really looks to be closer to a three team race, with Senegal pushing in as a major part of the contest (sorry, Japan).
Theme-wise, if you’re looking for one-man teams, Group H is where it’s at. Robert Lewandowski, James Rodriguez and Sadio Mane are all enticing fantasy adds. But if you’re searching for deep, well-rounded national sides that you can stock your fantasy squads with players at multiple positions, you’re probably going to need to take a survey of Groups A through G.
This quartet, with a trio of one-man teams, means that whichever pair of stars explode in the best form can carry their sides through to the Round of 16, so this is where anything (or at least almost anything) can happen. Beyond that, though, whichever of the two teams do get through will have their work cut out for them if they have designs on making a deep run into the glory stages.
Hopefully you have been reading all of our previous group previews, but if not, don’t hesitate to go back and give those a glimpse. In the coming days and weeks, we will also have Player Pick posts, Live Chats and plenty of other coverage, so do check back regularly. And if you haven’t already, be sure to register for the official 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Fantasy platform and join the Never Manage Alone “Beat the Bloggers” group! (Click on the link below.)
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How do you expect this group to turn out? Are there any players from Group H who you are planning to put in your fantasy teams? Is there anybody else you have your eye on aside from those mentioned above? Let us know in the comments!