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World Cup Group H Preview: Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan

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Perhaps the most wide-open group in the entire tournament, Group H is going to be oodles of fun. Of the four teams in the group, only Japan did not get at least one pick to top the group in PST’s writer predictions of the tournament results, and every team was picked to advance through to the knockout round at least once, with only Japan receiving less than two votes to advance.

Colombia: After a promising 3rd place finish in the 2016 Copa America, Colombia barely squeaked into the 2018 World Cup after struggling through a tough CONMEBOL qualification slate. After failing to win in any of its final four qualifying matches, Los Cafeteros have had a weird run-up to the tournament, beating France before a pair of 0-0 draws against Australia and Egypt. Nobody really knows what to expect from Colombia in Russia. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Senegal: Sadio Mane is a chic pick as one of the top players to watch in the 2018 World Cup, and Senegal has a surprisingly strong young team. The problem is the attacking support behind Mane, and when teams focus on the Liverpool star, they struggle to produce much else. Still, Senegal got a generous group draw without a clear frontrunner, and that could see them into the knockout round. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Japan: The Samurai Blue is a true dark horse of this tournament, but their strong attacking group will work against them. They have decent star power in Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa, Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki, and former AC Milan attacker Keiuske Honda, but the defense is unbelievably suspect. During the run-up to the World Cup, Japan coughed up six goals in three June matches against Ghana, Switzerland, and Paraguay. READ FULL TEAM PREVIEW

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


Who’s going through: Poland and Colombia

 [ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

Who’s going home: Senegal and Japan

Marquee match: Colombia vs. Senegal, June 28 in Volgograd

Top 5 players to watch
1) James Rodriguez — Colombia
2) Robert Lewandowski — Poland
3) Sadio Mane — Senegal
4) Shinji Okazaki — Japan
5) Kalidou Koulibaly — Senegal

Report: Newcastle’s Clark knocked out on Spanish dance floor

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A wild story out of Spain says an Englishman knocked Newcastle United defender Ciaran Clark unconscious at a night club.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

Clark was on vacation in Spain, where he was spending time at Crystal’s Bar in Punta Ballena, Magaluf very early Sunday morning.

Clark and a man “in his 30s” got into an argument that saw the Irish defender knocked out, according to the BBC.

Clark was left unconscious and taken to hospital after an argument between him and the suspect broke out on the dance floor.

The 28-year-old suffered cuts and bruises to his face.

Clark, 28, scored twice in 20 Premier League appearances this season, his second at St. James’ Park.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 9 — Iceland’s next step, Brazilian bounce back?

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Brazil is one of the favorites of the 2018 World Cup, while Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for the world’s biggest tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

On Friday, both enter their second match days feeling quite different after 1-1 draws.

They won’t face each other, of course, but the contrast is striking nevertheless.

Brazil opens the day’s action when it squares off with Costa Rica, who fell to Serbia in the opener. For Serbia, a dark horse of the tournament, it will be a meeting with Switzerland.

Then there’s Iceland’s bid to climb into the Group D driver’s seat by knocking off Nigeria. A win from Iceland would make Lionel Messi and Argentina’s task of qualifying for the knockout rounds extremely unlikely.

Below is Friday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group D
Nigeria vs. Iceland: Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group E
Brazil vs. Costa Rica: Saint Petersburg, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Serbia vs. Switzerland: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”