World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group H hopefuls

Group H certainly looks like an intriguing contest; Poland, Japan Senegal and Colombia will all fancy their chances to get through to the knockout stages.

World Cup Candidates: Interviewing the Group H hopefuls
[Photo via Getty Images]

VAVEL has been previewing each World Cup group ahead of the opening ceremony, with Group H the next to be put under the limelight.

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Colombia 

Known as: La Tricolor (The Tricolors)

Address: Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, Barranquilla

Best previous role: Quarter finals, 2014

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We’re a mixed bunch with some young, hungry talent eager to show what they have to offer. We also boast some top level players who are playing at some of the best clubs all over Europe. Our experienced heads include forward Radamal Falcao, who is nicknamed ‘El Tigre’ who has scored lots of goals with all his club sides. Our star of the last World Cup, James Rodriguez has enjoyed a fantastic year in Germany and will be hoping to take this to Russia.

There are very few weaknesses, one of those is who is in net for us. Our goalkeeper David Ospina, does not play regular first team football at his club side Arsenal, so may be a bit rusty when he lands in Russia. Our other issue is a lack of depth. Outside of Rodriguez, we do not have any top stars in the midfield area, we only have Juan Cuadrado who also plays for a top club in the major leagues. Falcao is also out only real hitman up front who scores on a consistent basis.

What happened last time out?

In Brazil we enjoyed our best showing in this competition to date. This was down to the superb performance of the break out star of the tournament in James Rodriguez. The then Monaco midfielder, walked away with the tournament’s Golden Boot with six goals, the pick of those coming against Uruguay, which was voted goals of the tournament. We ended up going out to the hosts Brazil in the Quarter-Finals.

​Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

Just the three. We meet Japan on June 19 before coming face-to-face with Poland five days later, rounding off with Senegal on June 28. We hope to see a few more opponents after that, though.

What's your strategy to beat those candidates?

Our pace down the wings, to cross in to Falcao who has fantastic heading ability. We have Juan Cuardrado and Jose Izquierdo, flying down those wings, who not only have the pace but have excellent long range shooting capabilities as well.

​Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

The obvious player to look at is Rodriguez. The player who shone through at the last World Cup. He enjoyed a great season in the first of his two years at Bayern Munich. As now one of the senior members of the squad, there will be more pressure on his shoulders.

Apart from Rodriguez, Falcao and Davinson Sanchez will be prove to be big game players. Falcao will be key to getting the goals as well after enjoying good seasons since moving to Monaco. Sanchez will also be important in neutralising attacks. Sanchez had an incredible debut season in the Premier League, where he kept veteran defender Toby Alderweireld out of the Tottenham team.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

Santiago Arias, who has had an incredible season with his club side PSV winning the league. Arias also made a goal contribution almost every three matches in the season, scoring three times and assisting six times.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five weeks?

Hoping to go one step further than Brazil and go to the semi-finals, and dazzling with some more incredible goals.

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Japan

Known as: Samurai Blue

Address: National Stadium, Tokyo, Japan

Best previous role: Round of 16

​What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Our squad has made a name for itself with our quick passing play and methodical build up in our attack. Our biggest strength has to be our quality in midfield, where we have a great playmaker in Shinji Kagawa. With our captain Makoto Hasabe and Japanese legend Keisuke Honda supplementing him, we excel at controlling the midfield while moving the ball forward through the opposition’s defense to create chances for our forwards.

Our biggest concern heading into the tournament is our defense. While the back is stronger this year than past teams, we still lack a star defender in our backline that can solidify the defense and hold a result. We also are lacking in centre backs and might have to play others out of position to fill the gap if we suffer injuries or decide to play three in the back.

What happened last time out?

The 2014 World Cup was a nightmare for us. We were in a group with Greece, Ivory Coast, and Colombia and had a good chance at making it out of our group. However, we lost to both Ivory Coast and Colombia and drew against Greece in a scoreless draw. We crashed out of the tournament, finishing last in the group and scoring only two goals in 270 minutes.

​Have you set up meetings with any other candidates?

We will be seeing Switzerland tomorrow on June 8th in our second-to-last friendly fixture before the World Cup begins next week. In the World Cup, we have a meeting with Colombia on June 19th and Senegal on June 24th. We wrap up our group stage play with Poland on June 28th.

What's your strategy to beat those candidates?

We hope to beat the other candidates by playing to our strengths. If we can control the midfield, we can dictate the pace of the game and play to our strengths in the middle of the pitch and out wide on offense. We plan to move the ball around quick to open defensive lines and work the ball into the box. Our defense will have to emulate the quality and effort of our midfield if we are to go beyond our currently scheduled meetings.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

The key man in our squad has to be Kagawa. Having played multiple years in Europe for Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United, he is the most established and developed Japanese player of this generation.

He is skilled with the ball on his foot and is capable of beating players one-on-one or squeezing through tight spaces to open up play. Kagawa also has great vision in the middle of the park and is an accomplished passer of the ball, which makes him the ideal midfielder for most sides. A lot of our play going forward will begin with this man, but we believe he is up to the task.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

While its players like Kagawa and Honda that steal the headlines, Shinji Okazaki is also another Japanese veteran who could stir up a storm in Russia. This is Okazaki’s third World Cup with Japan, and most likely his last at age 32. He has the highest goal tally on the current squad with 50, scoring in both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Despite his growing age, Okazaki proved over the last Premier League season with Leicester that he is still capable of grabbing important goals and can definitely do damage in front of goal for Japan.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five weeks?

We will probably be at home watching the final, but we hope to prove our critics wrong and make it out of the group stage, despite it being one of the tougher groups in the tournament.

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Poland

Known as: Biało-czerwoni (The White and Reds)

Address: National Stadium, Warsaw

Best previous role: Got to the semi-finals in 1928 and 1974

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We’ve got a very strong attacking outlet in Robert Lewandowski, averaging 3.1 goals per game in the qualifiers with him at the helm. Likewise, the team has a good backbone of experience with former-Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in the sticks, Piszcek at the back alongside Bednarek and Blaszczykowski and Lewandowski in attacking positions.

In terms of weaknesses, there is an unhealthy dependence on Lewandowski for goals. Should he pick up an injury or fail to live up to expectations, we could struggle to maintain our high scoring record.

What happened last time out?

We’ve featured in the World Cup seven times, with our last appearance in 2006 where we struggled, failing to get out of the group stages. We’ll be hoping to do much better this time round, despite a highly competitive group.

Have you set up meetings with another other candidates?

We kick-off our group against Senegal on June 19th before playing Colombia on June 24th and Japan four days later.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

We’ll look to exploit our strengths going forward, working through each third and getting the ball across to Robert Lewandowski whose quality will shine in front of goal. We’ve also got the ability to get the ball out wide to the experienced Blaszcykowski who can exploit Lewandowski’s strengths in the air. Colombia and Senegal are particularly fast so will take a more cautious approach through a possession based philosophy.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

Lewandowski, of course. He’s the all time top-scorer with 52 goals. He netted 16 times, an average of every 56 minutes of play, reflecting his remarkable goal scoring record that’ll have a huge hand in attempts to escape the group stage.

Any wildcard’s that might help you out?

Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski will be somewhat of a wildcard, impressing in Serie A before heading to Russia where he’ll naturally be watched by clubs across Europe. He’ll be the one to give service to Lewandowski, thus playing a crucial role.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five weeks?

It’ll be a real struggle to get out of the group stages, but hopefully we’ll fare better than last time out.

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Senegal 

Known as: The Lions of Teranga

Address: Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor

Best previous role: Reached the quarter-finals on their World Cup debut, 2002

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

We’ve got a pacey team, with strong experience in the ranks via Premier League proven players in Sadio Mane, Magaye Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté as well as Koulibaly, Napoli’s powerful and highly sought-after centre-back. Mane offers us the ability to hurt teams on the break alongside Keita Balde while Gueye and Kouyaté have enabled us to tighten up defensively – a crucial component given Poland and Colombia poses a strong attack in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Radamel Falcao respectively.

The obvious weakness within our side comes in the form of a lack of defensive cover. Although Koulibaly has been a rock at the back this season, spearheading the joint second best defence in the Italian Serie A, there is little in the way of options should he pick up an injury. Much of the creativity from our side will also depend solely on Keita Balde and Sadio Mane to offer chances to Sakho up top.

What happened last time out?

This will be only the second World Cup for Senegal, having featured for the first time in 2002, reaching the quarter-final.  That brought about the best World Cup memory, beating France 1-0 in the first game before losing 1-0 to Turkey after extra time.

Have you set up meetings with another other candidates?

We set off with a game against Poland on June 19th before a crunch tie with Japan five days later, rounding off on the June 28th with a feisty game against Colombia. Hopefully there’ll be some more games to come after that.

What’s your strategy to beat those candidates?

We’ll progress slowly through the ranks, with a key emphasis on possession football looking to frustrate our opponents before getting the ball up to our creators in attack. Expect to see a 4-3-3 formation with Gueye providing the spine in midfield, but we’ve got plenty of flexibility in the ranks in order to put the opposition on the back foot.

Who are you relying on to help you secure the job?

It has to be Sadio Mané. He’s had a phenomenal season for Liverpool, recording his best goals and assists tally with 20 goals and nine assists. He’s also become the leading African scorer, overtaking Demba Ba to reflect the mammoth threat he carries down the flank. Thus, he’ll be imperative to the fluid, attacking style of play on display. So too Keita Balde whose also proven to be a key outlet.

Aside from that, Kouyate will be important in stifling the opposition while Gueye will nip in with timely interceptions. That’ll be necessary in order to stop the attacking threats.

Any wildcards that might help you out?

The team speaks for itself in many ways; there’s several attacking options that could be utilised but the top three are the main aspects of the side. A known quantity but one that’ll be efficient.

Finally, where do you see yourself in five weeks?

Trophy-less but a successful tournament regardless. Topping the group and showing off the attacking, fluid football this team is capable of producing, it should be a positive World Cup.