Group H is potentially the most interesting in Russia this summer. While the average group difference in FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index score between the best and worst teams is about 25, Senegal’s SPI rating of 66.0 is only 14.5 points lower than Colombia’s 80.5. Poland (73.3) and Japan (71.4) are rated very similarly in the middle of the group. On top of this, the teams are filled with exciting attacking players from Europe’s strongest leagues: Poland’s Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), Colombia’s James Rodríguez (Bayern Munich), Japan’s Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) and Senegal’s Sadio Mané (Liverpool) will all be battling to make an impression on the world’s biggest stage.
Paper tiger or legit contender?
After missing three straight World Cups, Colombia made a big impression in the 2014 World Cup — even without Radamel Falcao, who was unable to recover from injury in time to play. Four years later, Los Cafeteros’ talismanic striker is back, but he is no longer the star of the team: After finishing as the top scorer with six goals in Rio, Rodríguez has become the focal point of an exciting Colombian attack, which boasts a 69 percent chance of making it to the knockout stage.
José Pékerman’s squad likes to attack directly in open play — in 41 matches tracked by data firm Opta Sports since the 2014 World Cup, Colombia reached the opposition via playing a string of 10 or more successful passes only 75 times, just less than twice a game. Instead, the side relies more on attacks in which at least 50 percent of the movement is toward the opposition goal, with a ratio of these “direct” to “slow” attacks of 4.2-to-1.8. Defensively, they operate a medium block, regaining the ball in the middle area of the pitch 23.3 times per game — more than any other team in South American qualifying.
Poland, marginally the second favorite in Group H with a 55 percent chance of finishing first or second, is even more reliant on its star player, Lewandowski.1 In qualifying, the towering striker was Poland’s top shot taker and goal scorer, and he also created the most Opta-defined “big chances” for his teammates. With 16 goals, he scored more than any other player in European qualifying, either scoring or assisting on 61 percent of Poland’s goals.
Underdog or also-ran?
Japan, with a 43 percent chance of getting through the group, is something of an unknown given that it changed manager in April, with Akira Nishino taking charge. The side’s two main attackers, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, have a wealth of experience representing their country on the international stage, but they have been somewhat ineffective over the past few years, both being dropped by previous managers. With an average age of 28.6, the squad is severely lacking in young talent.
Skillful wingers Keita Baldé and Mané offer Senegal’s main threat in attack, while the towering defensive presence of Kalidou Koulibaly makes the spine of the team seem stronger than its 33 percent chance of progression may suggest. Given the relative equality of the group, a strong performance from Senegal in its opener against Poland could dramatically change expectations.
Player to watch
In 2014, James Rodríguez was a relative unknown who went on to become the archetype of a World Cup breakout. But after a disappointing move to Real Madrid culminated in a loan to Bayern Munich this year, the left-footed magician returns to the international stage with a point to prove.
Rodríguez is coming off the back of a redemptive season in which he was one of the best creators in Germany and played a similarly dominant attacking role: He completed more passes per 90 minutes than any attacker in the Bundesliga to have played more than 25 percent of available minutes. He was also tied for fifth in expected assists per 90 minutes in open play, and he assisted the second most shots per 90 from set pieces.
|Player||Team||Expected Assists per 90|
|Thomas Muller||Bayern Munich||0.43|
|Karim Bellarabi||Bayer Leverkusen||0.35|
|Jadon Sancho||Borussia Dortmund||0.33|
|Mahmoud Dahoud||Borussia Dortmund||0.32|
|James Rodríguez||Bayern Munich||0.30|
|Leon Bailey||Bayer Leverkusen||0.30|
|Kingsley Coman||Bayern Munich||0.29|
|Mario Gotze||Borussia Dortmund||0.29|
|Franck Ribery||Bayern Munich||0.29|
|Fin Bartels||Werder Bremen||0.27|
In qualifying, Rodríguez scored and assisted on more goals than any of his teammates, while also having the most shots and touches of the ball. While he may not have become a Galactico in Madrid, he is indisputably his country’s most important player.
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