Ok, let me get this out from the off – I love SENEGAL in this group. Aliou Cisse has built a side packed with attacking flair since taking charge in 2015. Led by Liverpool sensation Sadio Mané, Les Lions de la Téranga (The Lions of Teranga) boast a wealth of young attacking talent. Look out for Monaco’s Keita Baldé, Torino’s M’Baye Niang and Rennes wonderkid Ismaïla Sarr, who will all endeavour to run at defences and score. Captain Cheikhou Kouyaté, who has been in good form for West Ham United this season, will anchor the midfield and quite surprisingly the Senegalese are decent at the back. Kalidou Koulibaly and Kara Mbodji are rock solid in the centre of defence, with young Bordeaux full back Youssouf Sabaly a threat down the left. Unbeaten in 10 qualification games, conceding only 3 goal and with Mané set to light up the tournament, I think they top Group H, in what will be a surprise to many. COLOMBIA will have other ideas no doubt. The South American powerhouse stuttered through qualifying and ended up very fortunate to progress after 3 draws and 1 defeat in their last 4 games. Chile’s failure to beat Brazil in their last game was met with a collective sigh of relief in the country. Harshly treated by the referee in their quarter-final defeat to hosts Brazil in 2014, Colombia then disappointed in the Copa América, bowing out to Argentina on penalties after scraping through their group despite failing to beat Peru and Venezuela. José Pékerman is adored by the fans after the performance in Brazil and has been given more time to realise the potential of this talented squad. Once again Radamel Falcao will lead the line for Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers), however it is the dynamism of the three players in support that many will be looking forward to watching: James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and José Izquierdo have all impressed in European football and look to take on the world stage once again. A young back four is marshalled by Spur defender Davinson Sánchez whose first seaon in the Premier League was outstanding. Can they repeat the ventures of four years ago? I think they will grow through the group games and could be the team nobody wants to play in the knockout rounds. I’d stopped being excited about POLAND before the last European Championships, and of course they finally started to put right years of wasted potential. Growing up I loved the Polish team of the 80s, I sat in my bedroom watching VHS tapes of Grzegorz Lato and Zibì Boniek destroy defences at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Piotr Zieliński and Karol Linetty are close as Biało-czerwoni (The White and Reds) have ever coming to emulating those legends. Both earning rave reviews in Serie A with Napoli and Sampdoria respectively, they could be the key to provide service to main man Robert Lewandowski. Now nearing 30, you feel this tournament will be his last chance to achieve success with his country. Already his country’s all-time leading scorer, can the Bayern hitman inspire his nation in Russia? JAPAN dismissed coach Vahid Halilhodžić in April after a 1-1 draw (thanks to a goal with the last kick of the game) and 2-1 defeat to Ukraine in warm up games. Many believed the course of action to be harsh and further eyebrows were raised when they hired as a replacement, Akira Nishino. Out of coaching since 2015, he has no international experience but did win the J-League with Gamba Osaka way back in 2005. Who knows what to expect, however the change by the Japan Football Association was intended to reaffirm a commitment to attacking football. Step up Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki. Led by every manager’s ideal professional, Makoto Hasebe, you feel that the Samurai Blue need to upset Colombia in their opening game to have a chance of progressing to the knockout phases.
Players to watch: Sadio Mané, Keita Baldé, Ismaïla Sarr (SEN), Davinson Sánchez, Mateus Uribe, Juan Fernando Quintero (COL), Robert Lewandowski, Piotr Zieliński, Karol Linetty (POL), Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda (JPN)
Fun fact: In a strange interview post-sacking, ex-Japan coach Halilhodžić said “Why was I sacked? In Japan, everything is focused on money, and that’s how they perceive football too,” he said. “That is, according to me, the main reason. I will go to Japan in a week to get that cleared up” Money is the root to all the world’s problems, we already knew that right?!