With the start of the FIFA World Cup 2014 less than a week away I take a look at each group: the teams, the key players and matches, and offer my predictions. Here I look at Group C, containing Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan.
Before the 1994 World Cup in the United States there was tremendous hype surrounding the so-called ‘golden era’ Colombia team. Sadly their World Cup experience ended in tragedy as defender Andres Escobar was murdered after reportedly getting in an altercation started because of his role in the team’s first round exit.
Since then there has been just one World Cup appearance (1998), a decline in fortunes and status that saw Colombia slip to their lowest ever ranking of 54 in the FIFA World Rankings in June 2011. Since then Colombia have enjoyed a phoenix-like revival and the extent of their resurgence is no better illustrated than pointing out that by August 2013 the team had risen to #3 in the same rankings.
After qualifying second behind Argentina in the CONMEBOL qualification campaign hopes are high for this new generation of Colombian footballers and it was anticipated the attacking combination of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez (both of AS Monaco) could take Colombia deep into the tournament. However, Falcao will play no part in the tournament after he failed to recover from a serious knee injury.
As the figurehead of their attack Colombia will miss the cut and thrust Falco provides. Nevertheless, in Rodriguez they have a talent quickly establishing himself as one of the most promising playmakers in the game. Porto’s striker Jackson Martinez has scored plenty of goals in the past two seasons, but it remains to be seen whether he can shoulder the burden of leading the attack.
Support from the flanks in the form of Victor Ibarbo and Juan Cuadrado, along with the dribbling skills of Juan Quintero and the long-range shooting of Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin mean Colombia will offer plenty of purpose in attack.
At the back it will be down to 38-year-old veteran Mario Yepes to lead the line, but in Milan’s Christian Zapata and Napoli pair Juan Zunigo and Pablo Armero there is plenty of experience.
The ingredients suggest great potential for Colombia in Brazil even without talisman Radamel Falcao, and with a fairly kind draw in Group C this may present Colombia’s best chance at making their mark on a World Cup.
Colombia’s past ‘golden era’ failed when it came to the crunch, but this is a generation significantly removed, psychologically and temporally, from the scars of USA 94; they do not have to carry that baggage with them.
If Colombia can shake off the past and find a way to play with freedom and expression they could be very dangerous opponents indeed.
Key player: James Rodriguez
The Monaco playmaker holds all the cards to make this a successful tournament for his team. He has enjoyed an excellent season since his 45 million Euro move to France and even if it was felt at 22-years-old he may not yet be ready, Rodriguez’s form over the past two years would suggest otherwise.
Throughout the qualifying campaign Rodriguez played a pivotal role, be it creating opportunities, earning penalties, or scoring winners himself. Following three years of gradual improvement and exposure at Porto, the move to Monaco has helped groom Rodriguez into one of the most exciting talents in European football.
It still remains to be seen how Rodriguez goes under the intense pressure of a World Cup and the intense scrutiny that comes with a whole nation’s hope and expectation; the absence of Falcao will only magnify that.
World Cup best
Round of 16: 1990
Odds: 25-1 (William Hill)
Since winning Euro 2004 Greece have done little on the international stage to suggest their success in Portugal a decade ago was anything more than a momentous fluke. Despite appearing in three of four major international tournaments since then, a single quarter-final appearance at Euro 2012 aside, the Greeks have done little but make up the numbers.
During qualification for Brazil 2014, Fernando Santos’ team were their usual turgid best, using defensive tactics to stifle opposition and steal wins on the counter attack. Their strong defensive showing which accumulated eight clean sheets from 10 matches, in which they conceded just four goals (none from open play), exemplifies the strength of the Greeks in defence; a total of 12 goals in those 10 matches also points at an ultra-conservative approach in what was a fairly weak qualification group.
There should be no difference in Brazil and Greece will prove difficult and stubborn opponents for the more fanciable teams Colombia and Ivory Coast.
They are a decent bet for the round of 16, a position from which they may even frustrate their way to the latter stages. They won’t be pretty to watch, but then they won’t care if it’s effective.
Key player: Konstantinos Katsouranis
Fulham’s Karagounis captains the team, but if anybody symbolises what this Greek team is about it is PAOK midfielder Katsouranis. The 34-year-old now has 111 caps to his name and along with Karagounis is one of only two survivors of the victorious Euro 2004 squad.
That tournament was the making of the former Benfica midfielder and little has changed since, except maybe he doesn’t cover the ground as swiftly. Nevertheless, Katsouranis remains exemplary in his position play, occupying a place just in front of the back line and his passing providing the heartbeat of the Greek side.
His experience and organisation will be one of Greece’s best weapons in Brazil. Manager Fernando Santos will place his hopes on the determined and disciplined play that characterises Katsouranis, rather than any indulgent forays into that apparent antithesis of Greek football - total football.
World Cup best
Group Stage: 1994 & 2010
Odds: 200-1 (SkyBet)
When Ivory Coast were dumped out of Africa’s World Cup four years ago there was a general consensus that Les Elephants had missed a great opportunity - but then that is exactly what this generation of Ivorians have done for nearly a decade.
However, the perennial underachievers will be looking at their group draw and will surely believe the fates have provided them with a wonderful opportunity.
True, Didier Drogba is no longer at his bulldozing best but such is the personality and sheer will to win of the former Chelsea striker that you wouldn’t rule out him going on one last charge of destruction. In addition to that possibility, Les Elephants have on their side the force of nature that is Yaya Toure. Sprinkle in the experience of the likes of Liverpool centre back and former Tottenham anchorman Didier Zokora, as well as some talented younger players like Serge Aurier and Swansea’s Bony. It makes a potentially potent mix.
In what is probably the most open group at the World Cup Ivory Coast have to take their opportunity. For Drogba and the Toure brothers there will not be another chance like this - there probably will not be another chance. Period.
Ivory Coast are again Africa’s most attractive proposition, but whether they can finally deliver what is so long overdue waits to be seen.
Key player: Yaya Toure
On his day I don’t think anyone or anything can stop the Manchester City midfielder. The complete midfielder - the only African-born player comparable to the great Patrick Vieira - Toure will have to believe this his last chance to make a mark on this tournament - for himself, for his nation, for his continent even.
Ivory Coast will look to the Manchester City man in the same way the Premier League champions do when they need someone to deliver when it counts. Toure has the temperament, the experience, but most of all the talent to lead the charge.
The only question is whether he can inspire those lesser mortals in his team to drag themselves along with him. The mantra should be ‘wherever Yaya goes, we go with him’ and if it comes off it could be a spectacular World Cup for the Ivorians.
World Cup best
Group Stage: 2006 & 2010
Odds: 125-1 (Bet365)
Asian champions Japan travel to Brazil with a real possibility of achieving a best ever World Cup finish. Managed by accomplished Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni, the Samurai Blues can boast of being equipped with their most professional, most athletic, most talented squad and, intriguingly, most positive approach yet.
The transformation from a conservative style of play to more expansive, attacking football has not only earned Japan plaudits, but has built high expectation at home about what could be achieved in Brazil.
Set up to attack in a seemingly gung-ho 3-4-3 formation, Zaccheroni’s Japan (or Zac Japan, according to local media) demonstrated their capacity with a surprise 3-2 away victory against the much-fancied Belgium team last year, just three days after a highly creditable draw against the Dutch.
Going into the tournament the Japanese are unbeaten in six internationals, won their qualification group at a canter, so will be brimming with confidence.
Four years ago they were a bit of a surprise package in reaching the knockout phase, but for different reasons. This time they could spring another surprise simply in the way they go about things.
Their draw has been reasonable again and without a recognised ‘big nation’ in the group Zaccheroni’s Japan could well fancy their chances as long as they don’t leak too many at the back.
Key player: Yasuhito Endo
While most people will mostly identify the names of forwards Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), the key player for Japan, the man who makes them tick over is Yasuhito Endo.
The 34-year-old Gamba Osaka midfielder is the Japanese Pirlo, his passing and creativity will be what gets Japan forward and into the final third where players like Kagawa, Honda, and qualification top scorer Shinji Okazaki can do the damage.
Just take a look back at Endo’s sublime free kick against Denmark four years ago and you get an idea of the ability in the veteran’s right foot.
World Cup best
Round of 16: 2002 & 2010
Odds: 80-1 (Coral)
Colombia v Greece (14 June, Belo Horizonte, 13.00 local time)
You feel if Colombia are to do well in this tournament they must get off to a good start and avoid finding themselves on the back foot in the same way the tragic class of 94 did.
Unfortunately, Greece offer exactly the sort of opposition you don’t want first up. Fernando Santos will send out his team out to defend and frustrate Colombians, so it will provide a stern test of the maturity and temperament of Jose Pekerman’s side.
If Colombia can get through this match I fancy they could go on and have a good tournament, but if they come unstuck against the Greeks then it could well be a case of history repeating itself.
Colombia v Ivory Coast (19 June, Brasilia, 13.00 local time)
Probably the most eye-catching fixture in the group, with both sides boasting an array of exciting attacking talent. Both sides look better going forward and, on paper, a little suspect at the back, so it promises plenty of goals.
Many will pick this pair out as the pre-tournament group favourites, so with this being the middle of three group games it should be a key fixture for both sides.
Colombia have the most talented squad in the group, but they remain a bit of an unknown factor and have a few ghosts from the past to put to rest. My heart tells me it should be the Colombians and Ivory Coast, but I expect Greece to grind their way through, so it could come down to the Colombia-Ivory Coast encounter to determine that second spot. Japan could cause an upset, but expect them to concede goals.