Colombia and Poland are vying for favouritism in Group H but Steve Rawlings fancies Senegal to be the surprise package...
“Qualification was a cruise for Senegal and with the impressive Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli in defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane up front, the Lions of Teranga could be Group H’s surprise package.”
Arguably the most competitive group - represented by Africa, Asia, Europe and South America - H is hard to call. We've already seen the favourites flip-flop with Colombia, disposing the early jollies, Poland, at the head of the market...
Classy Colombia the team to beat
Colombia won all three group matches four years ago, including a 4-1 demolition of Japan, who they'll meet again in their opening tie on June 19. They returned home as heroes having reached the quarter-finals, where they lost narrowly and controversially, 2-1 to Brazil.
Los Cafeteros lost on penalties to Argentina in the quarter-finals of the Copa America in 2015 and they reached the last four at the special centenary edition of the event two years ago, losing to the eventual winners, Chile, 2-0, before beating the USA in the third-place playoff 1-0.
Qualification wasn't a walk in the park and it was only assured in their final game when they drew away with Peru after a nervy home defeat to Paraguay in their penultimate game.
Colombia came from 2-0 to beat France 3-2 in the Stade de France in a friendly in March and with the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao in their side, they're strongly-fancied to progress out of the group.
The Colombians were all the rage before the 1994 World Cup, when they were backed down to a single-figure price but they failed to get out of the group and defender Andres Escobar, who'd scored an own goal in their second group game (a 2-1 defeat to the hosts the USA), paid for the failure with his life. The 27-year-old was shot in the back outside a nightclub just five days after they'd been eliminated.
Despite being the third seeds in the group, behind Poland and Senegal, they're the most likely team in Group H to lift the trophy and priced at a much more realistic [50.0] this time around.
Poles poised for a tough tournament if Lewandowski flops again
Poland were semi-finalists way back in 1974 and again in 1982 but this is their first World Cup since 2006, when they failed to progress past the group stage for the second World Cup in-a-row.
Other than a shock 4-0 defeat to Denmark, the Poles sauntered through to the finals with their star striker, Robert Lewandowski, bagging a record-breaking 16 qualification goals.
Poland were beaten at the quarter-final stage of the European Championships two years ago by the eventual winners, Portugal, on penalties, when they were viewed as lively outsiders at around the 40/1 mark but for the second Euros running, their key man, Lewandowski, only managed to find the net once.
The Poles have a solid enough midfield but they're leaky at the back (conceded in eight of ten in qualification and 14 times in total) and, if Lewandowski fails to deliver for a third time at a tournament, Group H's number one seeds could be vulnerable against both the Colombians and the Senegalese.
Sadio's Senegal set to shine
It's now 16 years since Senegal's sensational World Cup debut, when they stunned the holders, France, beating them 1-0 win in the first game of the tournament. They drew their next two group games, beat Sweden in added time in the round of 16, but lost to Turkey in extra time in the quarter-finals. That was some debut and it's been a longer wait for their return than expected.
Qualification was a cruise (finished five points clear of Burkina Faso) and with the impressive Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli in defence and Liverpool's Sadio Mane up front, the Lions of Teranga could be Group H's surprise package.
I'm in full agreement with Ben Acleer about Senegal being a good price to progress and, if they get the better of Poland in their opener, the odds of around [6.0] about them topping the group will look very big.
Sorry Japan ripe for an early exit
Japan start this World Cup with the same fixture they finished the last one with and there's nothing to suggest they can reverse the outcome. They look some way below Colombia's class.
Qualification was straightforward enough, although far from spectacular, but after a couple of poor friendly results (a draw with Mali and defeat to the Ukraine), the manager, Vahid Halilhodžić, was dismissed and replaced by Akira Nishino and it's very hard to envisage the new man at the helm can get them shipshape enough to progress so soon. His first game in charge saw them go down 2-0 to Ghana last week.
Japan are competing in their sixth straight World Cup finals and only Brazil have a longer consecutive run of appearances, but they face three stronger rivals and the Samurai Blue look set for a tough tournament. Odds of around [2.4] for them to finish Rock Bottom look fair.