England’s comprehensive 6-1 win over Panama yesterday saw them safely through to the last 16 in Russia – who could they end up facing in the next round?

After yesterday’s result, the mood in the England camp is at an all-time high and they may well feel that they can beat anyone on current form. However, depending on who they are drawn against from Group H in the next round, their task could prove far more difficult than they may have hoped.

There are 3 sides still in the running to qualify from Group H and set up ties with either England or Belgium. Columbia, Senegal and Japan will fight it out in the last set of group games and Gareth Southgate’s men will definitely be paying close attention to the final outcome.

Let’s assess these potential opponents in more detail:

COLUMBIA –

To put it plainly, Columbia is by far the strongest of the three sides in question and definitely the most dangerous opposition England could face after the group stage.

Despite a shock defeat in their opening game against Japan (which can be attributed mainly to an early red card), Columbia is a free-flowing, entertaining side with players capable of tearing apart the best defences in this competition.

The attacking trio of Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Juanfer Quintero is one of the most dangerous in this World Cup, as exhibited in their thrilling 3-0 victory against Poland last night.

Rodriguez, in particular, is a world-class talent who has produced on this stage before, winning the golden boot 4 years prior in Brazil during Columbia’s run to the quarterfinals. He is capable of unlocking the meanest of defences with his vision and ability on the ball and no team is going to fancy coming up against him.

They also have a fairly solid defence, marshalled by Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Davinson Sanchez, who sit in front of Arsenal Goalkeeper David Ospina.

Columbia’s final group game is against Senegal and if they can replicate the same kind of performance they produced against Poland, it is highly likely they will book their place in the last 16.

Southgate’s team should fear no one but I am certain they would rather avoid such a huge test in the next stage. Columbia’s plethora of dangerous players going forward would provide a huge challenge and one that could well come too early for an England side improving gradually with each game.

JAPAN –

Japan began their campaign in Russia in spectacular and unexpected fashion as they defeated Columbia 2-1, battling their way to victory against 10 men for almost the entire 90 minutes after Carlos Sanchez saw red for the South Americans after just 3 minutes.

There was more than a hint of fortune about Japan’s win, but their resilience and determination to secure all three points despite conceding an equaliser was endearing and an impressive example of their mental toughness.

They followed up that result yesterday with a similarly stubborn performance during a 2-2 draw with Senegal, equalising twice in the match and refusing to accept defeat.

Japan’s main strength lies in their ability to turn defence in attack quickly – they are always a dangerous side on the counter with the electrifying pace of their two wingers Takashi Inui and Genki Haraguchi.

The man that orchestrates their quick transitions is former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who is definitely their standout player with his passing range and technical ability which drives Japan forward.

What is most evident from their opening two games, however, is the fact that they are not the most positionally astute side defensively. In both games, they provided their opposition with several clear-cut chances as a result of letting their forwards in behind far too easily.

Englands attacking prowess would surely overpower this Japanese outfit and as long as they remained disciplined and focused without the ball, you would have to fancy Harry Kane and co to dispatch them with relative ease.

SENEGAL –

Led by Liverpool winger Sadio Mane, Senegal is going strong in Group H, beginning with a comfortable 2-0 win over Poland before yesterdays draw with Japan.

In both games they have seized the initiative rather than sitting back and waiting to counter, this Senegal team takes the game to the opponent and has the pace and power to trouble anyone.

Koulibaly, currently centre back for Napoli in Serie A, is the leader of their mean defence which has a smouldering intensity about it, although they are prone to conceding soft goals as a result of lapses in concentration.

Senegal surely would have escaped with all 3 points against Japan were it not for their inability to focus again after scoring themselves, as both goals they conceded came shortly after they had gone in front.

Going forward much of their threat comes from Mane, who stands out as their only player really able to create opportunities out of nothing, but they do have some other notable stars.

Idrissa Gueye plays in holding midfield, a role he also plays for Everton in the Premier League and in attack M’Baye Niang is the man they look to as a source of goals, who plys his trade in Italy with AC Milan.

Unfortunately for the Africans, their final group game will be their toughest test yet, as they face a rejuvenated Columbia in a match that will decide who progresses to the next round.

A Senegal win, however, is not beyond the realms of possibility and if they can pull off an upset they could line up a clash with England next week. If that happens Southgate will need to warn his side against complacency, as Aliou Cisse’s men have proved they are not to be underestimated.

Now England fans will be full of excitement at the prospect of moving ever closer to that elusive second world cup victory, but the players must try to stay grounded.

After successfully negotiating arguably the easiest group in the tournament, far tougher tests now await the three lions, potentially starting with Columbia in the round of 16.

Though with so many different scenarios possible after the last set of group games, England could still easily end up facing either Japan or Senegal too, so it is very much a case of seeing what happens.

Whoever they end up with, there is no reason to believe that Southgate cannot rally his troops to beat anyone – the atmosphere and camaraderie within the squad has been fantastic so far and a welcome change from the recent history of our nation at the World Cup.

Whisper it quietly, but football could well be coming home this summer.

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