World Cup 2018: Group H First Matches

The last group to begin World Cup play is Group H, which starts with Colombia meeting Japan.  The Samurai Blue come in as one of the lower-ranked teams, 61st in the FIFA rankings.  This is a rematch of a group game four years ago in Brazil in which Colombia slammed Japan 4-1.  Just a few minutes in, a Japanese breakaway gets a shot off that the Colombian goalie expertly blocked, but the rebound  goes right back to the Japanese for a follow-up shot.  With the goalie on the ground, Colombian defender Carlos Sanchez used his arm to block the shot.  This is both a penalty kick and an automatic red card for Sanchez.  Shinji Kagawa delivered the penalty kick to the right while the goalie guessed left for an early Japanese lead.  While Japan controls the pace through the first half, Colombia had several scoring opportunities, notably Radamel Falcao several times knocking volleys with an outstretched foot on passes over the top of the defense.  Japanese striker Yuya Osaka made a beautiful nutmeg move that led to a good opportunity.

However, neither team was able to put shots on goal.  In the latter part of the first half, on a free kick just outside the Japanese box, Juan Quintero fooled the wall by striking the ball under the jumping wall and toward the near post.  The Japanese goalie nearly made the save, but the ball just got over the goal line.  In the second half, Colombia began to feel the effect of being a man down as the Japanese created several scoring opportunities.  Near misses on shots and one good save by the Colombian goalie kept the game tied for much of the second half.  Finally, in the 73rd minute, the pressure was too much.  A Japanese corner kick resulted in an Osaka header to the far post and the lead.  As time wound down, the Japanese used their man advantage to play keep away and keep the Colombians from gaining possession.  The Colombians pushed everyone up on offense at the end in a futile effort to get the equalizer.  Despite being the underdog going in, the Japanese looked to be the better team, controlling the pace and developing better shots.

8th ranked by FIFA, Poland went into its match with Senegal looking to take control of the group with Colombia’s loss.  They played without defender Kamil Glik, benched with a shoulder injury.  Perhaps as a result, the Poles opened the game with four in the back instead of their usual three.  Senegal opened the game being very aggressive on the attack, sending passes over the top of the Polish defense for its wings to run onto.  They were unable to deliver shots on target however.  Neither team developed good combinations for much of the first half until 37 minutes in when Senegal strings together passes from midfield to the left side and switching sides to the right.  The final pass was to an on-rushing Idrissa Gana Gueye, who rocketed a shot off a Polish defender and into the goal from just outside the box.  The goalie never stood a chance after the deflection.  Invigorated, Senegal nearly delivered another goal a few minutes later off a corner kick.  But the attacker headed the ball down with too much force and it bounced over the goal.

Starting the second half, Poland brought on another midfielder replacing one of their defenders, getting back to the three-wide defense that brought them success in qualifying.  Early in the second half, Polish captain and striker Robert Lewandowski, who was the leading goal scorer in qualifying, made a great solo run from midfield, but was fouled and taken down just outside the box.  Lewandowski bent the ensuing free kick around the wall to the near post, but the Senegalese goalie made a great save.  15 minutes in, Mbaye Niang, who was off the field because of a slight injury, was motioned on by the referee just as Senegal put a pass over the top of the Polish defense.  Niang raced in from the sideline and beat the defense and goalie to the ball.  He flicked the ball over the goalie and then followed it to bury the ball into the empty net.  Poland complained about the timing of when Niang was let on the field to no avail.  As time was winding down, a Polish defender took down a Senegalese attacker near the end line in the box.  No foul was called and Poland immediately launched a counterattack off the goal kick where they drew a foul about 35 yards out from the goal.  Senegal’s defense appeared to be waiting for the referee to allow a substitute onto the field when the referee instead signaled for the free kick.  The kick was expertly delivered into the box where Grzegorz Krychowiak sent a header to the far post for a goal.  It was too little, too late though, as time ran out soon thereafter.  The referee had both teams complaining about his controversial leading to both second half goals.  Group H ends their first matches upside down from expectations with both group favorites Colombia and Poland losing.

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