Most World Cup fans would’ve been hard pressed to hear much hype about Group H before the 2018 World Cup kicked 10 days ago, at least outside of the countries involved.
Comprised of Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal, what Group H boasted in terms of diversity – it’s one of just two foursomes in Russia featuring teams from four distinct geographic regions – was overshadowed by what appeared to be a colossal lack of intrigue, at least to the neutral observer.
In a way, it’s surprising. The four squads have from the start offered some legitimate star power. There’s Colombian forward James Rodriguez, whose six goals won him the Golden Boot as the top scorer in Brazil four years ago; Japanese legend Keisuke Honda, who has played for clubs on three continents; the prolific Poland and Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski; and the Teranga Lions’ Sadio Sane, scorer of Liverpool’s lone goal in last month’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid.
Yet those global icons were outliers on decidedly average national teams, the thinking went. As far as matchups, just about every other group seemed to offer more compelling storylines.
There was a delicious Spain-Portugal contest that Cristiano Ronaldo somehow made sure surpassed the pre-match hype. A tricky Group D featuring darlings Iceland, dangerous Nigeria and disrespected Croatia stood between Argentina and its goal of returning to the title match in what could be Lionel Messi’s last World Cup. For six full months we’ve known that one of Germany, Mexico or giant killers Sweden was going to go home early. Same goes for hosts Russia, Luis Suarez’s Uruguay, and Egypt and its injured talisman Mohamed Salah over in Group A.
What did Group H have to offer? There was the feel-good tale of Senegal’s return to the World Cup stage for the first time since its unlikely run to the quarterfinals in 2002 and, well, that was about it.
It took three minutes for that narrative to be turned on its ear.
We might have known there would be drama aplenty when Colombian Carlos Sanchez was sent off for imitating a goalkeeper exactly 180 seconds into the first Group H match, forcing Jose Pekerman’s team to play a man down for 92 minutes, including stoppage time, in an eventual 2-1 loss the Japanese.
Not to be outdone, Senegal completed its own upset about thee hours later, beating a Polish side that was dominant by every statistical measure but had the misfortune of conceding a first-half own goal.
Things stayed crazy when Japan and Senegal squared off Sunday in Ekaterinburg. Twice the Blue Samurai went down against the Lions, the second time on a thumping strike that made 19-year-old right back Moussa Wague the youngest African to score at a World Cup, and twice Japan roared back, with veteran Honda making in 2-2 in the 78th minute after coming in off the bench.
The draw effectively turned Sunday’s nightcap between Poland and Colombia into the first knockout match at Russia 2018. It was played like one.
The tension at Kazan Arena was evident from the opening whistle, with both teams tackling at every opportunity while simultaneously playing with caution early on. Yerry Mina finally broke the deadlock just before halftime when he headed Rodriguez’s cross home. Veteran Radamel Falcao’s first World Cup goal doubled Los Cafeteros’ lead midway through the second half before Juan Cuardado put the Poles away with a third off a spectacular diagonal pass by Rodriguez.
The loss sent Poland home after just two games, a cruel fate considering that they probably deserved at least a point from their opener. No matter. With Japan and Senegal atop Group H with four points apiece and Colombia now sitting just behind on three, there’s an awful lot left to play for.
Even already eliminated Poland’s performance against the Blue Samurai on the last day of the group stage will go a long way towards determining who shares their misery by going home along with them.
You can be sure there will be plenty to talk about whatever happens on Thursday.
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