World Cup 2018 Group H preview: Parity reigns thanks to Poland's scheming

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Last, but not necessarily least, is Group H.

Group H team previews: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group H tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion … except in Group H.

Because Group H is baffling. It’s the tightest of the eight. Colombia and Poland are probably favorites. But there’s a scenario where neither advances. The Poles, despite being the top seed, could realistically finish bottom. Senegal has pretty darn close to a 25 percent to finish in each of the four positions, first through fourth. So maybe H is a 1-1-1-1, or a 2-2, or a 1-2-1, or a 1-3, or a 3-1 … who knows?

The more important question is: How the heck did we get this type of parity?

Why the group has no clear frontrunner

We have parity because of Poland. Damnit, Poland. FIFA’s new World Cup seeding system, with the draw determined primarily by the FIFA rankings rather than geography, was supposed to stamp out two things: A) Groups of Death, and B) ones like Group H. What it failed to account for is that the FIFA rankings are farcical.

Poland accounted for that, though. That’s why it only played one friendly in the 16 months after Euro 2016. Because of the laughable flaws in FIFA’s formula, the ploy allowed Poland to rise to No. 6 in the world, and into Pot 1 at the World Cup draw. Here’s an in-depth explanation. That’s why we have no true top seed in Group H; no clear favorite. Poland definitely doesn’t fit the bill.

Poland is ordinary with one extraordinary striker

In Poland’s last five games against World Cup foes, its lone win was 3-2 over South Korea, one of the worst teams in the field. It got smacked 4-0 by Denmark in qualifying. It eked out a 0-0 draw with Luis Suarez-less Uruguay. It lost to Mexico and Nigeria.

Now, two of the four feeble attacking performances came without Robert Lewandowski, the qualifying cycle’s top goalscorer. But that’s kind of the point. Beyond the Bayern Munich frontman, Poland, in a World Cup context, is the definition of mediocre.

We’ll therefore need others to determine whether “mediocre” is enough to progress from Group H.

James Rodriguez and Robert Lewandowski are club teammates. They’re also the two best players in 2018 World Cup Group H. (Getty)

Colombia’s equalizing tendency

Colombia doesn’t necessarily have uncertainty heading to Russia. It has a central figure, a still-firing striker with a track record, an already-indoctrinated young center back duo, and a long list of solid role players. But its results over the past year haven’t made any damn sense. It has drawn Brazil and Spain, and beaten France. But it was held scoreless by Venezuela, Australia and Egypt. It lost to South Korea and Paraguay. Huh?

The explanation, though, is a tactical one. Colombia’s style – in three words: press, counter, James – lends itself to dethroning kings, but not to burying inferior challengers. And that’s precisely the problem here. There are no kings in Group H. Can Colombia beat the teams it’s supposed to beat?

A related question might be: Will Senegal and Japan play like inferior opponents? Will they heed the recent lessons of Australia and Egypt? If they do, Group H could get weird and jumbled.

Senegal is Group H’s fulcrum

So much of this group, actually, will depend on Senegal. It could come out with nine points. It could come out with zero.

We’ve established that Poland and Colombia are what they are. We think Japan is a step below everyone else – though a March managerial change makes the Blue Samurai unpredictable. We have no idea what Senegal is, other than a candidate for best nickname at the tournament. Are the Lions of Teranga a true sleeper, with a domineering center back, a central midfield pair that double as defensive vacuum cleaners, and an attack, led by Sadio Mane, overflowing with talent?

Or are they merely the team that failed to win its three most recent friendlies against Uzbekistan, Bosnia and Luxembourg?

Until further notice, it’s the latter.

Senegal still hasn’t sorted itself out

It’s not premature to posit that Senegal manager Aliou Cisse has no idea what he’s doing. At the very least, it seems he doesn’t know how he’s going to set his side up in Russia. He’s played 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 and multiple versions of a 3-4-3. He even went with a 4-2-4 in the Luxembourg friendly … and his players couldn’t find a goal.

Cisse seems to have figured out that he should take advantage of the ground Idrissa Gueye can cover in midfield. (That sentence should read “Idrissa Guey and Cheikhou Kouyate …” but Cisse recently tried Kouyate at center back.) But he hasn’t figured out whether to use Mane as a creator or a field-stretching winger. He hasn’t figured out who should play, or how they should play, alongside Mane.

And if he is experimenting with such drastic changes at the 11th hour, even if he figures out a group of 11 players that fit together, there’s no defined system in place. And it seems very likely that, despite all that attacking talent, Senegal will flounder going forward and disappoint.

But again … there’s every chance it sorts itself out at the last minute and advances in top spot. Such is the nature of Group H.

Group H TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Tuesday, June 19
Colombia vs. Japan, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Poland vs. Senegal, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Sunday, June 24
Japan vs. Senegal, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Poland vs. Colombia, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Thursday, June 28
Japan vs. Poland, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
Colombia vs. Senegal, 10 a.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group H predictions

Ryan Bailey: Poland (1), Colombia (2)
Henry Bushnell: Colombia (1), Poland (2)
Joey Gulino: Colombia (1), Senegal (2)
Doug McIntyre: Colombia (1), Poland (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Colombia (1), Poland (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

More World Cup from Yahoo Sports:
2018 World Cup preview hub
FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit
Ramadan dilemma for World Cup-bound Muslim players: faith or football?
USMNT’s qualifying failure, as told by the two coaches responsible

  • Race to lead Britain out of EU pits old foes
    News
    AFP News

    Race to lead Britain out of EU pits old foes

    The race to become Britain's next premier heated up on Sunday as Environment Secretary Michael Gove joined a crowded field of hopefuls with competing visions of how to finally pull their divided country out of the EU. Gove's bid for the leadership in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum

  • Rare albino panda caught on camera in China: state media
    News
    AFP News

    Rare albino panda caught on camera in China: state media

    A rare all-white panda has been caught on camera at a nature reserve in southwest China, showing albinism exists among wild pandas in the region, state media reported. The spotless, red-eyed animal was photographed while trekking through the forest mid-April in southwestern Sichuan province, said official

  • Very difficult for PM May's successor to pursue a no deal exit - Hammond
    News
    Reuters

    Very difficult for PM May's successor to pursue a no deal exit - Hammond

    British finance minister Philip Hammond said on Sunday it would be very difficult for Prime Minister Theresa May's successor to bypass the will of parliament and seek to take Britain out of the European Union without a deal. Several of the candidates vying to take over from May have said Britain

  • Kurdish rebel leader calls end to jail hunger strikes in Turkey
    News
    AFP News

    Kurdish rebel leader calls end to jail hunger strikes in Turkey

    Imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has called for an end to hunger strikes by thousands of jailed supporters in Turkey protesting the conditions of his detention, his lawyers said Sunday. Ocalan, the co-founder of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) held on Imrali island off

  • UK must be ready to leave EU without a deal - leadership contender Raab
    News
    Reuters

    UK must be ready to leave EU without a deal - leadership contender Raab

    Britain must be ready to leave the European Union without an exit deal on Oct. 31, former Brexit minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday, as he set out his pitch to succeed Theresa May as prime minister. "If you're not willing to walk away from a negotiation, it doesn't focus the mind of the

  • Israel president says Jews unsafe in Germany after kippah warning
    News
    AFP News

    Israel president says Jews unsafe in Germany after kippah warning

    Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said Sunday that Germany's warning to Jews on the dangers of wearing the traditional kippah cap were a "capitulation to anti-Semitism" and evidence Jews were unsafe there. Germany's government commissioner on anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, said in an interview

  • Egypt unfreezes assets of Mubarak-era interior minister
    News
    AFP News

    Egypt unfreezes assets of Mubarak-era interior minister

    Egypt has unfrozen the assets of its Mubarak-era interior minister, who was acquitted on all corruption-related charges earlier this month, a judicial source confirmed Sunday. The Illicit Gains Authority decided last Thursday to lift freezes on Habib al-Adly's assets and those of aides who were

  • Iran will defend itself against any aggression, says foreign minister
    News
    Reuters

    Iran will defend itself against any aggression, says foreign minister

    Iranian will defend itself against any military or economic aggression, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday, calling on European states to do more to preserve a nuclear agreement his country signed. Speaking in a news conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed al-Hakim

  • Libya's Haftar rules out Tripoli ceasefire, dismisses U.N.-led talks - newspaper
    News
    Reuters

    Libya's Haftar rules out Tripoli ceasefire, dismisses U.N.-led talks - newspaper

    Libyan eastern commander Khalifa Haftar has ruled out a ceasefire in the battle for Tripoli and accused the United Nations of seeking to partition Libya, according to an interview published by French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) began an offensive in early

  • Jailed Kurdish militant leader calls for end to hunger strike
    News
    Reuters

    Jailed Kurdish militant leader calls for end to hunger strike

    Jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan called for Kurdish lawmakers and thousands of prisoners to end their hunger strike in a statement read by one of his lawyers on Sunday, 200 days after one MP launched the protest. Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Leyla Guven began a hunger

  • Kurdish rebel leader calls end to jail hunger strikes in Turkey: lawyers
    News
    AFP News

    Kurdish rebel leader calls end to jail hunger strikes in Turkey: lawyers

    Imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has called for an end to hunger strikes by thousands of jailed supporters in Turkey protesting the conditions of his detention, his lawyers said Sunday. "I expect the action to come to an end in light of the broad statements to be made by my two lawyers

  • UK environment minister Gove joins race to replace May as prime minister - Sky
    News
    Reuters

    UK environment minister Gove joins race to replace May as prime minister - Sky

    Environment minister and prominent pro-Brexit campaigner Michael Gove said on Sunday he would be running to replace Theresa May as British prime minister, Sky News reported. "I can confirm that I will be putting my name forward to be prime minister of this country," Sky News quoted Gove as

  • UK opposition Labour's McDonnell says must work to block a 'no deal' Brexit
    News
    Reuters

    UK opposition Labour's McDonnell says must work to block a 'no deal' Brexit

    Britain's opposition Labour Party will seek to prevent Prime Minister Theresa May's successor taking the country out of the European Union without a deal, its finance spokesman John McDonnell said on Sunday. May said on Friday she would step down next month, and several of those vying to replace

  • UK must leave EU on Oct. 31 even without a deal - PM candidate McVey
    News
    Reuters

    UK must leave EU on Oct. 31 even without a deal - PM candidate McVey

    Britain must quit the European Union at the end of October even if that means leaving without a deal, Conservative lawmaker Esther McVey, one of the candidates to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, said on Sunday. "The 31st Oct is the key date and we are coming out then and if that means without

  • Macron and Le Pen in battle for EU's soul
    News
    AFP News

    Macron and Le Pen in battle for EU's soul

    The fight between President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in Sunday's European election in France mirrors a larger battle across the continent between competing visions of bloc's future. Macron, France's youngest ever president, and Le Pen have a lot riding on the results

  • Thailand's unmatched powerbroker Prem Tinsulanonda dies aged 98
    News
    AFP News

    Thailand's unmatched powerbroker Prem Tinsulanonda dies aged 98

    Former prime minister and close advisor to Thailand's revered royals Prem Tinsulanonda died early Sunday aged 98, a senior parliamentarian said, ending a decades-long career of unrivalled influence over Thai politics. Prem "passed away this morning around 9 o'clock", interim house

  • Hungary's Orban hopes for anti-immigration shift in Europe in vote
    News
    Reuters

    Hungary's Orban hopes for anti-immigration shift in Europe in vote

    The European parliamentary election will hopefully strengthen anti-immigration political forces across Europe, Hungarian right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban told reporters after he cast his vote on Sunday. "I hope that there will be a shift in the European public arena in favour of those political

  • Papua New Guinea PM Peter O'Neill resigns amid gas deal tensions
    News
    AFP News

    Papua New Guinea PM Peter O'Neill resigns amid gas deal tensions

    Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill resigned on Sunday following a string of high-profile political defections that threatened his leadership. O'Neill -- who had been in power since 2011 -- handed over the reins to veteran politician Julius Chan, who has twice been prime minister.

  • Renault in team-up talks with Fiat Chrysler: reports
    News
    AFP News

    Renault in team-up talks with Fiat Chrysler: reports

    French carmaker Renault is in talks with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles with the long-term prize a world-leading alliance including Japan's Nissan and Mitsubishi, reports say. The Wall Street Journal said the talks were "wide-ranging" and could include Renault and Fiat Chrysler "joining

  • Iraq warns of 'danger of war' as Iranian FM visits
    News
    AFP News

    Iraq warns of 'danger of war' as Iranian FM visits

    Iraqi leaders have warned of the risks of war during a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose country is locked in a tense standoff with the United States. Zarif's visit to neighbouring Iraq -- which is caught in the middle of its two allies the US and Iran -- follows a decision

  • German state vote could threaten future of Merkel coalition
    News
    Reuters

    German state vote could threaten future of Merkel coalition

    Voters in the northern state of Bremen look set to inflict a humiliating blow to Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), in an election on Sunday that could hasten the end of their loveless federal coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives. Polls in Germany's smallest state, focused

  • Time to get back to work as Australian PM names cabinet
    News
    Reuters

    Time to get back to work as Australian PM names cabinet

    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison named his new cabinet on Sunday, with most positions staying the same, saying the government had "a significant agenda" to deliver and it was time to get back to business. Incoming Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who served in the Army Reserves for

  • Five economic challenges for India's Modi
    News
    AFP News

    Five economic challenges for India's Modi

    With Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party securing a landslide win in the Indian elections, AFP looks at the key economic challenges facing Asia's third-biggest economy: - Reforms - In his first term, Modi was widely credited for trying to change a culture

  • China digs in for protracted trade fight with US
    News
    AFP News

    China digs in for protracted trade fight with US

    China is digging in for a tough period of deteriorating ties with the United States, fanning the flames of patriotism with Korean War films, a viral song on the trade war, and editorials lambasting Washington. The trade spat has turned into a war of words since President Donald Trump blacklisted Huawei

  • Venezuela's Guaido says will send representatives for talks with govt
    News
    AFP News

    Venezuela's Guaido says will send representatives for talks with govt

    Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Saturday he would send delegates to Oslo next week for the first face-to-face meeting with representatives of President Nicolas Maduro's government as part of a Norway-led mediation effort. Guaido, recognized by the United States and dozens of