This group looks a bit thin on paper but can throw up some exciting matches. Poland (ranked 7th in the world) and Colombia (ranked 16) are the obvious candidates for progress from this group, but Senegal (ranked 27) and Japan (ranked 61) will hope otherwise. Senegal, especially, could be the team to produce upsets in this group. Personally, I would be delighted if they do so.
Japan, being by far the lowest ranked team in the group, are not really expected to qualify. Moreover, their coach Akira Nishino was appointed just two months before the tournament. Yet, hope springs eternal, and perhaps the Japanese players will rise to the occasion and surprise their opponents with the usual display of fitness, grit and competitiveness.
The have an excellent goalkeeper in Eiji Kawashima, who will be playing in his 3rd cup. The defence features full back Yuto Nagatomo, also in his 3rd cup. The experienced Maya Yoshida and Tomaoki Makino will man the centre of defence. Gotoku and Hiroki Sakai are two competent full backs. The midfield revolves around the squad captain Makoto Hasebe (defensive) and Keisuke Honda (attacking); both will be in their third cups. Hotaru Yamaguchi will probably join Hasebe in the sitting role, while Shinji Kagawa will add to the attack with his experience and skill, as well as his ability to score. Genki Haraguchi can play from the wings. The attack will be led by another 3rd time world cupper, Shinji Okazaki, with support from the likes of Yoshinori Muto and Yuya Osako.
Poland is another team that has been performing with consistency in the last couple of years, resulting in their current high ranking. Their captain and iconic star Robert Lewandowski is a household name in football. Coached by 1978 world cup squad member Adam Nawalka, the side also includes several other highly skilful and experienced individuals, who can give nightmares to commentators but provide lots of delight to their fans.
The squad has two top class goalkeepers in Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny. Fabianski is the only squad member with previous world cup experience, having been a squad member when Poland last played the finals in 2006. .In central defence, Kamil Glik, if fit, is expected to partner Michal Pazdan. Brazil born Thiago Cionek could also get a look in. Lukasz Piszczek and Artur Jedrzejczyk would probably play as side backs.
The midfield will probably have Grzegorz Krychowiak controlling the centre, with two very skilful and established players, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki operating from the wings. Supporting them could be the likes of Slawomir Peszko, Maciel Rybus and the young and talented Piotr Zielinski and Karol Linetty. Up front, Lewandowski will probably be partnered by Arkadiusz Milik, with Lukasz Teodorczyk.
Senegal are one of my three personal favourites in this world cup – the others being England and Egypt. They had appeared only once before in world cup finals, in 2002, and they had reached the quarter finals then. Their captain at that time was Aliou Cisse, and he is their coach now – the youngest coach in this year’s competition. One hopes that Cisse can inspire Senegal to another memorable performance.
The goalkeeper’s choice could be between Abdoullaye Diallo or Khadim N’Diaye. The defence will feature Kara Mbodji and the imposing Kalidou Koulibaly in the centre, along with (perhaps) Salif Sane. Saliou Ciss and Lamine Gassama would probably be the side backs. In midfield captain Cheikhou Kouyate, Idrissa Gueye and Alfred N’Diaye will take up defensive duties while Cheikh N’Doye and Badou Ndiaye will attack. The talented 20 year old Ismaila Sarr is an exciting winger, as is Keita Balde. Moussa Konate can also play from the wing, or join the attack. Up front, Senegal’s best prospect seems to be Sadio Mane, who can be lethal from wide areas. He will have plenty of support from the likes of Moussa Sow, Mame Biram Diouf, Diafra Sakho and the young M’Baye Niang.
Colombia will be coached by for the second successive world cup by Argentine Jose Pekerman, who was also Argentina’s coach in 2006. They have a host of supremely talented players and are hoping to go far in this competition.
David Ospina is Colombia’s goalkeeper for the second cup running. In centre of defence they have the experienced Cristian Zapata, along with two very talented youngsters, Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina. The experienced Santiago Arias and Farid Diaz could be the side backs. The two veterans Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez will be the two defensive midfielders, behind one of the world’s most creative midfielders James Rodriguez. Juan Cuadrado and Jose Izquiredo could both be brilliant from the flanks.
In attack, squad captain Radamel Falcao tragically missed the last world cup; he will have a lot to prove this time. If he is form, then Colombia can have a lethal attack with support from the likes of experienced Carlos Bacca, Luis Muriel and Miguel Borja.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)