Group H Preview: Colombia has the edge among balanced quartet

One of the World Cup most balanced groups might also prove to be the most exciting, with each team having a serious shot to top the group while fielding an array of attacking talent.

Colombia, the darling of 2014 World Cup, returns to the world stage in perhaps better shape than four years ago. The 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez is coming off a Bundesliga-winning season with Bayern Munich. And although he’s nursing a calf injury going into the opener against Japan, Radamel “El Tigre” Falcao, who missed Brazil 2014 with a knee injury, is ready to go. Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado is a polished winger, now having played at the top level in Europe for years.

Senegal would be wise to not over-rely on Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, and his goalscoring potency may come down to the quality of his supporting cast. Winger M’Baye Niang offers pace and quality in front of goal, while the midfield of Cheikhou Kouyate, Idrissa Gueye and Badou N’Diaye offer some muscle to complement the front three’s speed. Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli is the best defender in Group H; equally intelligent and powerful, he was a major reason Napoli finished runner-up in Serie A.

Poland’s Robert Lewandowski has been scoring boatloads of goals for some time in Germany, first at Dortmund and then at Bayern Munich. To complement the established marksman, Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski will provide legs and support in the midfield, and ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and Borussia Dortmund’s longtime right back Lukasz Piszczek will anchor the defense.

Japan coach Akira Nishino, who replaced Vahid Halilhodzic two months ahead of the World Cup, has revitalized the national team careers of playmaker and free-kick specialist Keisuke Honda and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa.

The Colombians' experience from the last World Cup -- plus a healthy El Tigre -- give them the edge to finish atop Group H.

Our Picks: 1. Colombia 2. Poland 3. Senegal 4. Japan

Group H Schedule
June 19 Colombia vs. Japan, Saransk (8 am ET, FS1, Telemundo)
June 19 Poland vs. Senegal, Spartak Stadium, Moscow (11 am ET, Fox, Telemundo)
June 24 Japan vs. Senegal, Ekaterinburg (11 am ET, Fox, Telemundo)
June 24 Poland vs. Colombia, Kazan (2 pm ET, Fox, Telemundo)
June 28 Japan vs. Poland, Volgograd (10 am ET, *FS1, Universo)
June 28 Senegal vs. Colombia, Samara (10 am ET, *Fox, Telemundo)
* Network assignment subject to change.

World Cup: Complete Rosters

The Entertainers
Robert Lewandowski, James Rodriguez and Sadio Mane can by themselves take their opponents by storm. Rodriguez had a hand in 48% of Los Cafeteros’ goals on the road to Russia (six goals and four assists), while Lewandowski led all scorers in this World Cup UEFA qualifying campaign with 16. Mane surpassed Demba Ba to become the highest scoring Senegalese player in EPL history; he also scored 10 goals in the Champions League.

Breakout player
The 23-year-old Keita Balde, who was born in Spain, arrived at AS Monaco from AS Monaco last season on a reported $35 million and is poised dazzle on the wing for the Senegal.

In its only previous World Cup appearance, Senegal opened with a 1-0 over defending champion France, its former colonial master, and reached the quarterfinals, where it fell on a golden goal to Turkey. Senegal at this World Cup is one of only two teams, along with Sweden, without a single player from its domestic league on its roster.

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