Thursday, July 19, 2018

World Cup 2018: England should not fear Group H last 16 opponents

England will say they are not thinking that far ahead, that they are taking it one game at a time and simply focusing on the game in hand.

But Gareth Southgates side have qualified for the last 16 of the World Cup following their thrashing of Panama today, and although Belgium lie in wait on Thursday, its hard not to look at what awaits them afterwards.

Group H, the group which will provide the opposition for England on 2 or 3 July, is the best-matched and least predictable of the eight. It has served up lots of entertainment and 13 goals in its four games so far, leaving England plenty to ponder.

Read more: England hit Panama for six to light World Cup touchpaper

Once safely aboard their plane back to St Petersburg earlier, Englands TV screens may well have been filled with Colombias stylish dismantling of Poland. If they took any of it in, the players may already be hoping to draw a different side.

While Group H was the hardest to call before the World Cup started, many would have picked out Colombia as the favourites. With memories of James Rodriguezs magic taking them to the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago, that was a fair guess.

And after a shock opening 2-1 defeat by Japan, helped by Carlos Sanchezs early red card, Jose Pekermans side found their groove in a 3-0 win over Poland today.

Colombia's James Rodriguez (centre) was the star of the show against Poland (Source: Getty)

Rodriguez, fellow left-footed playmaker Juan Quintero and flying winger Juan Cuadrado were all on song in Kazan, systematically demolishing the ailing Polish back four with clever movement, inch-perfect passing and inventive interchanges.

By the time they were done, Poland were shot to pieces, demoralised and going home.

Cuadrado, Quintero and Rodriguez combined perfectly from a short corner for Yerry Mina to head in the opener and the trio displayed their talent with the following goals too: Quintero playing Radamel Falcao through for the second and Rodriguez picking out a pass of the tournament contender for Cuadrado to beat Wojciech Szczesny one on one.

England conceded against Tunisia and Panama and their back three, shielded by Jordan Henderson, would be sure to receive a stern test if they were to draw Colombia, who play Senegal on Thursday knowing a win would take them through.

Senegal, meanwhile, have also showed plenty of promise, scoring twice in both games. England will know all about the danger Liverpools Sadio Mane brings, but there are many strings to their bow: they press well as a team and attack from all angles.

While Manes goal in a 2-2 draw with Japan today owed a lot to goalkeeper Eiji Kawashimas mistake, Senegals second displayed their dynamism, with left-back Youssouf Sabaly crossing for right-back Moussa Wague to smash home at the back post.

Whether either Colombia or Senegal progress to the last 16 from top spot depends on how Japan get on against Poland though. The Japanese were underdogs in Group H but have held their own to keep themselves in the mix.

Takashi Inui (right) has been Japan's most creative player in their opening two matches (Source: Getty)

At times they have resembled a side of contradictions, looking disorganised and vulnerable one minute, but creating a good chance the next. Senegal boss Aliou Cisse admitted his team were second-best yesterday and he was right; if Japan had taken their chances they could have qualified already.

Takashi Inui was a creative spark, Yuya Osako missed a glaring opportunity and struck the crossbar, while right-back Hiroki Sakai was a constant threat on the overlap.

Despite the blood and thunder, seesawing matches and excellent entertainment, England should not be worried about whoever they are drawn against from Group H. While there has been impressive attacking from all sides, bar the off-colour Poland, there has also been shaky defending.

Colombia capitulated early on against Japan, Senegals defence, led by Napolis Kalidou Koulibaly, looked ragged against the same opposition and Japan have often invited pressure before being forced to hit back.

England, their manager and their fans may well fancy Japan, who are ranked 61st in the world, over the more eye-catching attacking verve of Colombia and Senegal.

But with confidence at a near all-time high following the Panama walkover they will be ready to take on whichever side is put in front of them.

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