What’s their deal? After a thrilling showcase on their home continent four years ago, the delightfully nicknamed Coffee Growers are back for more in Russia. Coach José Pékerman has kept the 2014 squad largely intact since then, when James Rodriguez burst onto the scene with a dazzling array of goals. While he has faded somewhat in Madrid after signing a huge contract with Real–he’s currently on loan to Bayern Munich–James is as brilliant as ever playing for his country. The qualification campaign did not offer much hope for Colombia’s ability to beat the world’s best, but it made clear that they can beat just about anybody else.
But who can play? Captain Radamel Falcao, who was injured the last time around, is an elite striker who completes a potent one-two punch with James lurking behind him. Juan Cuadrado provides the width. Carlos Sanchez is the beating heart of the defensive midfield, beginning play from way back and sometimes dropping even further back to solidify the defensive line, which is otherwise anchored by the sprightly Davinson Sanchez.
What’s their soccer look like? Despite the powerful strikeforce of James and Falcao, this is, in fact, a defense-first squad, because there aren’t many options on offense besides those two. Pékerman knows that James can’t do it all in the middle, so Colombia play a patient game. A holding formation like 4-3-2-1 will maintain possession until James can find a way through, as he roves around wherever he sees the best opening, pushing forward and now back, with the team’s shape shifting around to accommodate him. A lot will be riding on James’ creative genius, so he will have to find the right areas. He won’t have much to work with on the left side though, an Achilles’ heel for this team.
So, how far can they go? Colombia can and should finish first in their group, and will be aiming for the quarterfinals. It’s questionable whether los Cafeteros can keep up with the world’s elite, so further advancement seems unlikely, but this is the kind of squad no one wants to face. Sleep on Colombia at your peril. Wake up and smell the coffee!
What’s their deal? Like their Korean neighbors across the sea, Japan are customarily a top team in Asia. But these Japanese are in the midst of a mediocre transitional phase, as their distressingly difficult qualification made painfully clear. Many of the same players have been here since 2010 and are somewhat on the wane from their glory days. Throw into the mix a sudden coaching change just before the World Cup, and things could be difficult for the Blue Samurai in Russia. The Japanese will be hoping their veteran experience is more of a help than a hindrance, and that a renewed commitment to speedy attack will take opponents by surprise in a fairly wide open group.
But who can play? The quality on this roster is mainly to be found in the attacking midfield. Keisuke Honda, immediately identifiable by his brightly dyed hair, is still the best player in the country and can be a thrill when he breaks away on the wing. Shinji Kagawa is the creative force, while Makoto Hasebe is the steadying presence in the middle. With all of the above in their 30s, though, it’s not out of the question that one or all of them might be coming off the bench.
What’s their soccer look like? With a new coach who has been toying with different approaches in the pre-tournament friendlies, it’s almost impossible to predict a formation. What Akiria Nishino has made clear is that his Japanese side will feature a renewed commitment to the attack, aided by old-school Japanese virtues of speed and covering as much distance as possible, which could make for some pretty exciting soccer.
So, how far can they go? Because of the nature of this group, Japan can and perhaps should hope for a fourth game. But to reach the last 16 would be no mean feat for a team that has struggled so mightily on the road to Russia, so unless Nishino suddenly hits on the magic formula, the more realistic possibility is probably a first-round exit.
What’s their deal? Returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, this is the best Poland have looked in a long time. Not coincidentally, the roster features one of the premier strikers in the world, Robert Lewandowski. Suddenly, Poland find themselves with an elite offense, boasting multiple attacking threats that can find scoring chances in several different ways. The defense, however, is another story. As many goals as the Poles can score, they give up lots, too. This makes them a high risk, high reward type of wager in this tournament, but will undoubtedly make Group H matches a sheer delight to watch.
But who can play? Other than Bayern Munich’s magnificent Lewandowski, the attack features a pair of youthful and ever-improving cannoneers from Napoli in Arkadiusz Milik and Piotr Zieliński. While the former is more of a pure striker, the latter is also a skillful passer who can shift back into the midfield as needs must. Kamil Grosicki is a reliable presence out on the wing. Things are a bit shakier on defense, of course, but the keeper Wojciech Szczesny, in line to replace Gigi Buffon at Juventus, can bail his team out.
What’s their soccer look like? As you may have guessed based on the above, this is an offense-first side. The shape will probably change between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with Zieliński being the swingman between the two setups and Lewandowski the constant point man on the attack. Coach Adam Nawalka has promised more defense for this tournament but that’s… hard to believe.
So, how far can they go? Poland unabashedly gamed the system to find themselves with a favorable seed in the World Cup draw, abstaining courteously from several friendlies in order to keep their FIFA world ranking as high as possible. It would thus be quite a shame if they were to waste the opportunity they’ve afforded themselves in Russia and fail to advance from the group stage. If their matches turn into the OK Corral, they can outshoot anyone, which might be enough to get them out of the group. But the defense will be a major problem when it comes to knockout soccer, so quarterfinals might be wishful thinking.
What’s their deal? Last but certainly not least, Senegal are back at the World Cup for the first time since 2002 to surprise and delight underdog fans. At their first and last appearance, they shocked their former colonizers by beating France in the group stage and even found their way to the quarterfinals. This squad, coached by 2002 alum Aliou Cissé, has the potential to do the same, given its impressive array of talented players. But the on-field product has not quite lived up to the hype, and Cissé has heard no end of it from the Senegalese press. Will the Lions of Teranga be able to put it all together in time?
But who can play? Sadio Mané is a bona fide star for Liverpool, though rather overshadowed by an ascendant Mo Salah. His speed, whether deployed on the wing or at CAM, will free up the underrated striker Diafra Sakho. Defensive solidity starts with Idrissa Gueye in midfield, backed by Napoli’s lockdown center back Kalidou Koulibaly. The burning question, though, is whether the impressive team sheet can translate into genuine on-field success against quality competition.
What’s their soccer look like? There has been enough experimentation in the months leading up to this tournament that any talk of formation would be speculation. Whatever the system, the Senegalese will rely on their defensive organization and physical strength to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible, so as to shorten the field for the counterattack and maximize their clear advantage in pace.
So, how far can they go? Again, this is anyone’s group, and Senegal have the quality to emerge as a surprise team of the tournament by bursting into the knockout stage. But ultimately, this edition of the Lions of Teranga looks a bit more fearsome on paper than on the field, so in all likelihood this tournament will be a good trial run for Qatar 2022, where you can bet on seeing a more fully realized and dangerous Senegal.