Japan will have to navigate a competitive group featuring three opponents widely tipped to have their measure if they are to again reach the World Cup’s round of 16 in Russia.
Not only will an aging Samurai Blue squad have to overcome the self-inflicted instability caused by changing manager just two months ahead of the global soccer showpiece, they will also have to deal with a trio of formidable foes.
Group H features a Polish team dripping with quality, a Colombian squad looking to further cement their place among South America’s elite and a Senegal side that boasts one of the world’s premier attacking talents.
Japan’s fans are right to envision a path into the knockout stage for their boys and hope for a first-ever quarterfinal appearance. If the team can take points from early tests against Colombia and Senegal, they may meet a Poland team that has already booked a place in the round of 16, but rarely do such fairytales play out.
In their first match against Colombia on June 19 in Saransk, Japan face a team that scraped into their continent’s last automatic qualification place, needing a final day draw with Peru to reach their second straight World Cup finals.
Against Colombia Japan has a two-loss, one-draw all-time record, the last meeting coming at the 2014 World Cup when a Jackson Martinez second-half double set up by the irrepressible James Rodriguez helped the South Americans embarrass Japan 4-1.
(James Rodriguez of Colombia)
After reaching the quarterfinals in 2014, the country’s best World Cup finish, world No. 16 Colombia will lean on its high-octane attacking duo of Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao in looking to advance further in Russia.
Rodriguez finished the 2014 tournament with the golden boot after scoring six goals in the team’s five matches, a performance that saw him snapped up soon after by Real Madrid.
Playing at the 2016 Copa America, the 26-year-old — now on loan at Bayern Munich — got the team to the semifinals where they lost 2-0 to eventual champions Chile. Rodriguez again showed his quality, scoring twice in the group stage.
Falcao has had a bumpy ride in recent years but has found form at the right time.
After establishing his credentials as a prolific goal-scorer in stints with Atletico Madrid and Monaco, he failed to impress in time with Manchester United and Chelsea. Upon his return to Ligue 1 in 2016, however, he was able to find his feet again, netting 21 and 18 league goals in the next two seasons.
If Japan can weather the Colombian storm, their task gets no easier next up against world No. 27 ranked Senegal in Ekaterinburg on June 24.
(Sadio Mane of Senegal)
The West Africans are making only their second World Cup appearance and have a lot to live up to after announcing their arrival with a quarterfinal run in South Korea and Japan 16 years ago.
At that World Cup, now-manager Aliou Cisse was a key part of a fiercely competitive team that shocked France and secured draws with Denmark and Uruguay in the group stage before beating Sweden in the round of 16. It took a golden goal by Turkey in the quarters to end the team’s stellar run.
In Russia, Cisse will bring together a team made up of nine foreign-born players — equal second most at the tournament, according to Gracenote Sports — that will again live or die by their defense.
Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, a player wanted by some of the world’s top clubs, will marshal from the back with Everton’s tackling machine Idrissa Gueye providing help in a defensive midfield slot. One of the Premier League’s top one-on-one defenders, the 28-year-old is known for combining an incredible work-rate with decisive and clean tackling.
But if Senegal are to make any real noise, their main man Sadio Mane must show he has what it takes.
Part of Liverpool’s vaunted three-pronged attack, Mane enters the tournament having scored 20 goals this season, 10 of them in helping his team reach the recent Champions League final.
In Senegal colors he has been equally as effective, scoring twice and providing five assists in the team’s unbeaten run through African qualifying.
In Senegal’s three matches against Japan — friendlies in 1987, 2001 and 2003 — they have won twice, and the teams drew the other.
Whether they like it or not, in terms of their opponents, Japan are saving the best until last: Poland.
(Robert Lewandowski of Poland)
Led by Bayern Munich’s one-man wrecking crew in Robert Lewandowski, the Poles can be considered warm favorites to top the group and might have their best chance in a long time of going deep into the tournament.
Poland’s best World Cup finish is third — achieved twice, at Germany 1974 and Spain 1982 — and at eighth, the team is currently just one spot below their all-time high in the FIFA world rankings.
Lewandowski is in career form, having scored a record 16 goals in European qualifying and just finished a season in which he scored 29 goals in 30 Bundesliga matches, topping the league’s goal-scoring list for the third time in the past five seasons.
With Lewandowski and his oft-injured but finally healthy strike partner Arkadiusz Milik, finding goals is unlikely to be a problem. But the team’s defense may be a different story.
Their leaky backline was somewhat disguised by their prowess in front of goal in European qualifying.
Poland, clear winners of Group E, conceded 14 goals — the most of any European group winner, and a long way off the most stingy teams, England and Spain, which gave up just three.
The team relied on a trio of experienced defenders in Michal Pazdan, Kamil Glik and Lukasz Piszczek but were rocked when Glik was ruled out of the tournament on Wednesday after suffering a shoulder injury when attempting a bicycle kick in training.
Surprisingly, Poland have never beaten Japan and in the teams’ two matches have given up seven goals without netting themselves, losing 5-0 and 2-0 in 1996 and 2002. When the teams meet for the third time in Volgograd on June 28, Japan would be thrilled to keep that record intact.