World Cup 2018 Group H preview: Parity reigns thanks to Poland's scheming

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Last, but not necessarily least, is Group H.

Group H team previews: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group H tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion … except in Group H.

Because Group H is baffling. It’s the tightest of the eight. Colombia and Poland are probably favorites. But there’s a scenario where neither advances. The Poles, despite being the top seed, could realistically finish bottom. Senegal has pretty darn close to a 25 percent to finish in each of the four positions, first through fourth. So maybe H is a 1-1-1-1, or a 2-2, or a 1-2-1, or a 1-3, or a 3-1 … who knows?

The more important question is: How the heck did we get this type of parity?

Why the group has no clear frontrunner

We have parity because of Poland. Damnit, Poland. FIFA’s new World Cup seeding system, with the draw determined primarily by the FIFA rankings rather than geography, was supposed to stamp out two things: A) Groups of Death, and B) ones like Group H. What it failed to account for is that the FIFA rankings are farcical.

Poland accounted for that, though. That’s why it only played one friendly in the 16 months after Euro 2016. Because of the laughable flaws in FIFA’s formula, the ploy allowed Poland to rise to No. 6 in the world, and into Pot 1 at the World Cup draw. Here’s an in-depth explanation. That’s why we have no true top seed in Group H; no clear favorite. Poland definitely doesn’t fit the bill.

Poland is ordinary with one extraordinary striker

In Poland’s last five games against World Cup foes, its lone win was 3-2 over South Korea, one of the worst teams in the field. It got smacked 4-0 by Denmark in qualifying. It eked out a 0-0 draw with Luis Suarez-less Uruguay. It lost to Mexico and Nigeria.

Now, two of the four feeble attacking performances came without Robert Lewandowski, the qualifying cycle’s top goalscorer. But that’s kind of the point. Beyond the Bayern Munich frontman, Poland, in a World Cup context, is the definition of mediocre.

We’ll therefore need others to determine whether “mediocre” is enough to progress from Group H.

James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski are club teammates. They’re also the two best players in 2018 World Cup Group H. (Getty)
James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski are club teammates. They’re also the two best players in 2018 World Cup Group H. (Getty)

Colombia’s equalizing tendency

Colombia doesn’t necessarily have uncertainty heading to Russia. It has a central figure, a still-firing striker with a track record, an already-indoctrinated young center back duo, and a long list of solid role players. But its results over the past year haven’t made any damn sense. It has drawn Brazil and Spain, and beaten France. But it was held scoreless by Venezuela, Australia and Egypt. It lost to South Korea and Paraguay. Huh?

The explanation, though, is a tactical one. Colombia’s style – in three words: press, counter, James – lends itself to dethroning kings, but not to burying inferior challengers. And that’s precisely the problem here. There are no kings in Group H. Can Colombia beat the teams it’s supposed to beat?

A related question might be: Will Senegal and Japan play like inferior opponents? Will they heed the recent lessons of Australia and Egypt? If they do, Group H could get weird and jumbled.

Senegal is Group H’s fulcrum

So much of this group, actually, will depend on Senegal. It could come out with nine points. It could come out with zero.

We’ve established that Poland and Colombia are what they are. We think Japan is a step below everyone else – though a March managerial change makes the Blue Samurai unpredictable. We have no idea what Senegal is, other than a candidate for best nickname at the tournament. Are the Lions of Teranga a true sleeper, with a domineering center back, a central midfield pair that double as defensive vacuum cleaners, and an attack, led by Sadio Mane, overflowing with talent?

Or are they merely the team that failed to win its three most recent friendlies against Uzbekistan, Bosnia and Luxembourg?

Until further notice, it’s the latter.

Senegal still hasn’t sorted itself out

It’s not premature to posit that Senegal manager Aliou Cisse has no idea what he’s doing. At the very least, it seems he doesn’t know how he’s going to set his side up in Russia. He’s played 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 and multiple versions of a 3-4-3. He even went with a 4-2-4 in the Luxembourg friendly … and his players couldn’t find a goal.

Cisse seems to have figured out that he should take advantage of the ground Idrissa Gueye can cover in midfield. (That sentence should read “Idrissa Guey and Cheikhou Kouyate …” but Cisse recently tried Kouyate at center back.) But he hasn’t figured out whether to use Mane as a creator or a field-stretching winger. He hasn’t figured out who should play, or how they should play, alongside Mane.

And if he is experimenting with such drastic changes at the 11th hour, even if he figures out a group of 11 players that fit together, there’s no defined system in place. And it seems very likely that, despite all that attacking talent, Senegal will flounder going forward and disappoint.

But again … there’s every chance it sorts itself out at the last minute and advances in top spot. Such is the nature of Group H.

Group H TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Tuesday, June 19
Colombia vs. Japan, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Poland vs. Senegal, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Sunday, June 24
Japan vs. Senegal, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Poland vs. Colombia, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Thursday, June 28
Japan vs. Poland, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
Colombia vs. Senegal, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group H predictions

Ryan Bailey: Poland (1), Colombia (2)
Henry Bushnell: Colombia (1), Poland (2)
Joey Gulino: Colombia (1), Senegal (2)
Doug McIntyre: Colombia (1), Poland (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Colombia (1), Poland (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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