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Group H Preview & Tips: Colombia favoured in a tight an unpredictable group
Colombia are expected to win Group H but it won't be easy with Poland, Senegal and Japan all difficult opponents
James Rodriguez will be a key player for Colombia in Russia (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
2018 World Cup Group H Preview & Tips
Group H doesn’t include a nation that is included amongst the favourites to lift the World Cup in Russia, but is expected to be very competitive Colombia and Poland likely to progress at the expense of Senegal and Japan. The close nature of the group should make it a lot of fun to watch.
Colombia qualified for their sixth World Cup by the narrowest of margins, just one point ahead of Peru in the play-off position and Chile who failed to reach Russia. Despite the precarious nature of their qualification campaign, the Yellow Fever have a strong squad who will be confident after reaching the quarter-finals at Brazil 2014.
68-year-old Argentine manager José Pékerman has been in charge since 2012 and has overseen the development in the squad which includes a host of world class talent. James Rodriguez was the top scorer in Brazil and has been in great form at Bayern Munich this season, with experience coming from David Ospina, Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Sanchez. Pékerman has a wealth of attacking options including Carlos Bacca, Radamel Falcao and Luis Muriel.
We could also see the emergence of two young central defenders in Tottenham’s Davison Sanchez and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina, but there are concerns about strength and depth in central midfield. Pékerman will ensure Colombia are organised and difficult to break down, before unleashing their attacking talent spearheaded by Rodriguez. The Yellow Fever should have little difficulty qualifying from Group H and they will be difficult opponents in the knockout rounds.
Poland will compete in their eighth World Cup and first since 2006 after cruising through qualification in a relatively easy group. The White and Reds have a proud history in the tournament, finishing third in 1974 and 1982 but failed to reach the knockout rounds in 2002 and 2006. In one of the more curious FIFA calculations, Poland are currently ranked sixth best team in the world ahead of Spain and France.
Manager Adam Nawalka has been in charge since 2013 and guided his nation to the quarter-finals at Euro 2016. Poland have a strong spine in Łukasz Fabiański, Kamil Glik, Grzegorz Krychowiak and Piotr Zielinski, but there is no doubt that the main man is Robert Lewandowski. With 16 goals in qualification and continually the top scorer in the Bundesliga, 29-year-old Lewandowski is clearly one of the best strikers in the world.
Nawalka needs to find a way to get the best out of Lewandowski with the striker scoring just one goal in five games at Euro 2016. Poland’s opponents in a tricky Group H will play a range of styles and the White and Reds will need to be extremely careful against Senegal in their opening game. Lewandowski’s class is no secret and he will be tightly marked in Russia, can Poland find enough creative solutions?
Japan will contest their sixth straight World Cup after edging past Saudi Arabia and Australia in qualification. The Blue Samurai’s preparations were thrown into turmoil however with manager Vahid Halilhodzic sacked just 10 weeks before the tournament begins, replaced by former technical director Akira Nishino.
How the managerial change affects Japan remains to be seen, but many will be glad to see the back of the conservative Halilhodžić and welcome an experienced Japanese manager. Nishino has a very experienced defence including Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Yuto Nagatomo and Makoto Hasebe while much will be expected from midfielders Genki Haraguchi, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
Up front Nishino has a range of options including Shinji Okazaki, Yuya Kubo, Takuma Asano and Yūya Ōsako. Despite being outsiders to qualify from Group H, Japan will be quietly confident and are certainly strong enough to compete with Poland and Senegal. A tough opening match against Colombia could set the tone, but if Nishino can galvanise his squad the Blue Samurai are a dangerous proposition in Russia.
Senegal reached their second World Cup after cruising through qualification ahead of Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa. The Lions of Teranga got past France and Uruguay in the group stage in 2002, beating Sweden in the round of 16 before going out against Turkey in the quarter-finals. A repeat of that performance would be a huge shock, but they will fancy their chances in a relatively weak group.
Senegal have the youngest manager in the World Cup in 42-year-old Aliou Cissé. Cissé was a member of the successful 2002 squad and has been in charge since 2015, but is a rookie in every sense of the word having managed just 27 games in his career. His athletic and pacey squad is led by Liverpool’s Sadio Mané who was the star performer in qualification. Their Group H opponents will be wise not to underestimate a squad with a host of top class talent.
Kalidou Koulibaly will lead the defence alongside Salif Sané, with midfield steel coming from Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté. Mané will be joined by Keita Baldé out wide with a range of attacking options incuding M'Baye Niang, Ismaïla Sarr, Diafra Sakho, Oumar Niasse and Mame Diouf. Senegal will provide plenty of entertainment in Russia and if they use their physicality and pace to good effect, can definitely progress to the knockout rounds.
Group H is easily the most difficult group to predict, with a good case able to be made for each nation reaching the knockout stage. It could be one of the most entertaining groups to watch from a neutral perspective, but Colombia deserve to be favourites with the most talented and settled squad. Poland might be overrated due to the Lewandowski factor, and with an opening match against a potentially underrated Senegal side, the Lions of Teranga are good value to progess.
Group H Winners: Colombia at 2.50
Group H to Qualify: Senegal at 2.50