If sports history repeats itself, Poland National Team supporters could be in for a wild ride at the 2018 World Cup.
They just need to pray for clear skies over Russia.
It was 1974 when the Poles last had an array of great playmakers still in their primes. Players like Grzegorz Lato and Manchester City midfielder-to-be Kazimierz Deyna joined legendary striker Andrzej Szarmach as the squad snagged headlines at the World Cup in Germany. Poland beat Argentina with an explosion of offense, then went on to eliminate Italy.
The Poles only needed to win a match against West Germany and the gold medals would be in sight.
But a torrential rain soaked the pitch and created puddles that slowed down the squad’s speedy midfield. Shot after shot missed the net or found the German goalkeeper’s gloves, and Poland lost 1-0.
It wasn’t the death knell for the Polish program. 8 years later, Poland finished 3rd in the World Cup in Spain. But the memory of lost potential still lingers.
Fellow Group H hopeful Senegal can relate. The Lions of Teranga made an astounding run to the quarterfinals in their maiden World Cup in 2002, beating France in the group stage. Since then, however, the nation has not qualified in 3 straight cycles. Japan, the longest-shot to win the group at (+800), followed up a promising 2010 tournament with an awful 29th place finish in Brazil 4 years ago.
And then there are the group-favorite Colombians, who surged into the quarterfinals at the 2014 World Cup before losing 2-1 to the Brazilians. But Brazil’s subsequent 7-1 loss to Germany gave the impression that Colombia had missed its own opportunity for a medal.
Colombia ((+140) Odds-to-Win Group H at Sportsbetting.ag)
The South American favorites snuck into the World Cup field through an extremely competitive CONMEBOL stage with a record of 7-6-5. The Colombian squad finished only a point ahead of Chile and 3 points ahead of Paraguay.
But unlike many nations who barely scraped through the qualification cycle to arrive in Russia, the Colombians are considered a serious threat in ’18 thanks to their difficult qualifying group and past exploits in FIFA.
Not to mention the talent on the pitch. James Rodríguez is the standout midfielder from Bayern Munich whom the “Coffee Growers” are built around. Rodríguez has been stunning at times in international play and is a big factor behind Colombia’s short odds to win the group.
Monaco’s veteran striker Radamel Falcao will serve as team captain as the all-time leader in goals scored for Colombia. The supporting cast at forward will produce speedy rushes and plenty of possession time.
If there’s weakness in the ranks, it’s defense and goalkeeping. David Ospina is a talented keeper but may not have the backline clearance to make life easy in the World Cup.
He has had a few bad days since getting the starting nod for Arsenal this season, including a 1-3 loss to Nottingham Forest and an 0-3 debacle against Manchester City in February.
40 years ago the Poles were an ensemble cast. This time around, a single striker will dominate the proceedings.
Team captain Robert Lewandowski is as red-hot as any footballer on the planet, scoring 16 – count ‘em – 16 goals in UEFA qualifying. That’s 4 more than all of his teammates combined in 10 full fixtures, though 28 tallies in 10 matches is still the mark of a dangerous attacking side and not a solo act.
Lewandowski rose to prominence in 2015 after scoring 5 times in 15 minutes in a club match, a feat that will live on in German football lore forever.
Caution: Hope you like the White Stripes.
But it is the 29 year old’s amazing trek in the current World Cup cycle that has pundits believing. In fact, “Robert” may soon be dropped from the striker’s name as the Pole receives the single-name moniker honor reserved for international superstars like Messi and Neymar.
There is skepticism about the goalkeeping of The White and Reds. Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny are major league players who have looked efficient at times in qualifying, keeping clean sheets against Romania and Kazakhstan.
But Poland’s chances of winning the group will hinge on the entire supporting cast around its phenom. Midfielder Kamil Grosicki has a strong in-step and has tallied 12 goals with 17 assists in 56 career caps, and will play alongside up-and-comer Piotr Zieliński out of Napoli.
Senegal (+400) and Japan (+800)
Skipper Aliou Cissé gives the Senegalese a direct link to the historic 2002 World Cup run. Building on his former crucial role on the pitch as a midfielder and center back, Cissé managed the national team on a brief interim basis in 2012 before earning the permanent position with a strong performance as U23 coach from 2013 to 2015.
He’s got the African side playing well. Senegal breezed through the group stage of qualifying, going unbeaten in 6 straight fixtures. Sadio Mané is an eye-catching winger who notched 20 goals for Champions League runners-up Liverpool in 2017-18.
Mané’s supporting cast is a little bit green. Moussa Sow and Keita Baldé should stand out on the front lines, but stout defender (and Piotr Zieliński teammate) Kalidou Koulibaly may play an even more important role as a steadying and fearsome presence in the Senegalese defense.
Cissé used a combination of goalkeepers in qualifying. The well-traveled Khadim N’Diaye played in the 5th qualification match against South Africa and kept a clean sheet, but 24-year-old Alfred Gomis stepped in for the following tilt against the same worthy opponent and seemed solid.
Ultimately it will be up to the African nation to prove it can hold off attacks like Colombia or Poland. Like the Polish side, its keepers are not held in the same regard as top names at the World Cup such as Manuel Neuer or David De Gea.
The Japanese are consistent if nothing else. The Samurai Blue are making their 6th straight World Cup appearance. The squad won its qualifying group by a close margin over Saudi Arabia and the Soccer Roos of Australia, prevailing by 1 point.
Japan scored 17 goals in qualifying and has a solid, if not spectacular, backline. Akira Nishino has emphasized harmony in his 2 months as manager, following the program’s weird and acrimonious split with former skipper Vahid Halilhodzic.
Forward Shinji Okazaki of Leicester has scored 50 goals in 112 appearances, but only tallied once in the last 8 qualifiers.
Midfielder Shinji Kagawa has put up 29 goals and 18 assists from 90 caps, but has been hampered by injuries. His sidekick Keisuke Honda hasn’t exactly been revving up the engine. He was blanked with 0 goals in the final 8 games.
Making the Best Bets with Schedule Sense
The biggest mistake World Cup handicappers make is to assume order-of-opponents is paramount in lopsided groups, where 1 or 2 nations are expected to dominate. Yes, timing is important when 2 countries are headed for an inevitable showdown. But it’s in a tightly-matched round-robin such as Group H that the schedule is of utmost importance.
Opening matches will be key. Colombia faces Japan on Tuesday, a fixture that could end with the Japanese having regained their momentum or the Coffee Growers perking with multiple goals. Meanwhile, Lewandowski will have the chance to show he’s the best athlete in Group H when the Poles face Senegal the same afternoon (morning in the United States).
Poland vs Colombia on 6/24 is obviously the match most supporters will be waiting breathlessly for. But I expect the Group H race to start to taking shape before then as the opening matches are less predictable than advertised.
Poland must answer for the concerns about their backline and goalkeeping. But style plays a role in the squad’s worrisome goals-against tally. The Poles play wide-open football more often than the Colombians, who might just let Japan hang around too long in the opener and suffer lost points via a loss or a draw.
Group H: Betting Analysis and Recommended Pick
I’m liking a wager on Poland to win Group H (+180 at Sportsbetting.ag) for a pair of reasons. Firstly, the squad’s attacking style and forward line may catch opponents off-guard, especially if they’re not cognizant of the Poles’ potential scoring depth.
Group fixtures at the World Cup are often slow and cautious affairs with both sides playing for a draw or a 1-0 win. The White and Reds will blow away any nation that isn’t prepared for an up-tempo 90 minutes with many scoring chances in both directions.
Second, the time is now for Robert Lewandowski to shed his Christian name and become simply “Lewandowski.”
Polish players are unfamiliar to a worldwide audience, and Bayern Munich does not have the TV and internet reach of Premier League contenders. If “The Body” had scored a million goals for Liverpool or Tottenham instead of a German club this season, you could expect the betting odds to look a little different. The dynamic striker is a powder keg ready to blow up on the biggest stage.
The Poles might give up a few goals, but they’ll score in bunches if opponents aren’t prepared for the quick pace. That makes Poland an excellent futures bet for group winner at close to 2-to-1 payoff odds.