This is the third of eight World Cup group previews as the days tick away to the tournament opener on June 12 in São Paulo between Brazil and Croatia. For comprehensive World Cup coverage, bookmark this page.
- Group D (Tuesday, June 4)
- Group E and F (Wednesday, June 5)
- Group G and H (Thursday, June 6)
Colombia (5th in FIFA Rankings) | 2nd in CONMEBOL qualifying | 3-8-2 all-time
Greece (10th) | 2nd in UEFA Group G, defeated Romania 4-2 in playoff | 1-5-0 all-time
Ivory Coast (21st) | Defeated Senegal 4-2 in CAF playoff | 2-3-1 all-time
Japan (47th) | Winners of AFC Group B | 4-7-3 all-time
140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
Best of luck in the Bracket Challenge, kids. Greece have a habit of defying the odds and there's little to separate the other three.
DAVID AND GOLIATH
It was going to be David and El Tigre, but with Falcao missing out it's hard not to look at the Ivory Coast's twin pillars of Yaya Touré and Didier Drogba. They've encountered disappointment in the previous two World Cups and their African Cup of Nations fortunes haven't been much better – it's now or never for this supremely talented but assuredly aging group of stars.
On the other hand, Greece have had a remarkably successful run of it as David. No one will forget their improbable run to the Euro 2004 title, but even in 2012 the Greeks defied the odds by getting out of their group, and netted twice against Germany in their 4-2 Round of 16 loss.
No Falcao won’t mean no fun, at least when it comes to the Colombia-Ivory Coast clash. He may be the Colombian you've heard of, but the Cafeteros boast a pair of talented, young creative midfielders (more below), and proven goalscorers from La Liga (Carlos Bacca) and the Bundesliga (Adrián Ramos). And with a solid supporting cast including proven Premier League talent like Wilfried Bony and Cheick Tiote, don't think the Ivorians will be resting on their stars' laurels.
|June 14 | 12 PM||Colombia||Greece||Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte|
|June 14 | 9 PM||Ivory Coast||Japan||Arena Pernambuco, Recife|
|June 19 | 12 PM||Colombia||Ivory Coast||Estádio Mané Garrincha, Brasília|
|June 19 | 6 PM||Japan||Greece||Arena das Dunas, Natal|
|June 24 | 4 PM||Japan||Colombia||Arena Pantanal, Cuiaba|
|June 24 | 4 PM||Greece||Ivory Coast||Estádio Castelão, Fortaleza|
James Rodríguez, M, Colombia: Falcao may be out, but his club teammate – and a budding superstar in his own right – will be right there to pick up the slack. Fresh off an outstanding debut season with big spenders AS Monaco, Rodríguez is a talented enough player to feature anywhere in the attack, though he is increasingly shouldering playmaking responsibilities.
Konstantinos "Kostas" Mitroglou, F, Greece: Yes, veteran Giorgos Karagounis is still the team’s on-field leader and Sokratis Papastathopoulos may be their rock in the back, but Greece will ultimately need goals. Mitroglou (pictured right) was happy to oblige by delivering three over their two-legged qualifying playoff against Romania last fall (pictured right), but a disastrous move to Fulham in January after a stunning Champions League group stage campaign for Olympiacos has derailed the 26-year-old’s form, a big concern for the Greeks.
Yaya Touré, M, Ivory Coast: Sorry, Didier – you’re a star, too, but Yaya is the man who will make the Ivory Coast go this summer. The all-action midfielder has been named the African Footballer of the year three times running and was arguably the best in his position in the Premier League this year with Manchester City.
Keisuke Honda, M, Japan: The crafty midfielder is back for more after a breakout performance at the 2010 tournament, where he scored two goals and assisted on another to lead Japan to their first two World Cup wins on foreign soil and out of their group. He is the kind of player that works best just behind the back line as an playmaker or false nine, and can augment his considerable skill with a deadly set piece.
NEXT BIG THING…
Juan Fernando Quintero, M, Colombia – Group C is on the older side, but Quintero looks as likely as anyone to emerge into the spotlight in Brazil. A hugely-impressive U-20 World Cup in 2013 despite Colombia's first-round exit secured him a move to Porto, and there he picked up the No. 10 shirt and registered four goals and four assists over 22 appearances, despite most of them coming off the bench.
Unsurprisingly, given his shirt number (though Rodríguez has No. 10 in Brazil) and country of origin, Quintero is a creative force in the attacking half of the field, much like Rodríguez. He has great close control and is a good set-piece taker – his next step is show he can do it not just in youth tournaments and one season in Portugal, but on the globe’s biggest stage.
It’s a crying shame many fans don't get to see Japan play on a regular basis, surpassed only by the fact that they’re somehow tied with Wales for 47th in the latest FIFA World Rankings while Greece are 10th – those things really do European teams a favor, don’t they?
The Samurai Blue not only feature some star power (think Honda, Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa or Bundesliga standouts Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe), but they’re a soccer nation on the rise whose development feaures some interesting parallels to that of the United States over the last 20 years.
In this group Colombia and Ivory Coast clearly have the name recognition, but Japan arguably has just as much talent. But with Bundesliga matches not widely available on TV in North America and the J-League even less so, the Japanese players receive very little exposure on this side of the world. They could flip that script this year, as they certainly boast the capability to shock their aforementioned, more illustrious opponents.
Unlike any other group in the tournament, all four of Group C's teams have foreign coaches. José Pekerman (Argentina) leads Colombia, Fernando Santos (Portugal) is in charge of Greece, Alberto Zaccheroni (Italy) heads up Japan and Sabri Lamouchi (France) coaches the Ivory Coast.
SIX DEGREES OF MLS
For a country that’s had so much success sending players to MLS, it’s no wonder there are a couple connections to the league in Colombia’s squad. Center back Carlos Valdés is actually still owned by the Philadelphia Union (he is on loan at Argentina’s San Lorenzo), while another former Union man – Faryd Mondragón – is still chugging along at age 42.
Also, it’s not an MLS connection, per se, but Japanese defender Gotoku Sakai, currently at Stuttgart in Germany, was actually born in New York City to a Japanese father and German mother, and moved to Japan at the age of two. He was eligible to represent the USA, Germany and Japan, but chose his father’s country at age 15 – an easy choice considering he had lived there nearly his whole life and Japanese was the only language he spoke at the time.
Even without Falcao, Colombia are just too talented to write off. Beyond that, you have the Ivory Coast’s star power versus Japan’s technical prowess vs. Greece’s familiar tough underdog role. I’m going to call it a trifecta of group stage disappointment for the Ivory Coast following 2006 and 2010 and go with Japan – not only technically sound, but four years more experienced than the side that won a pair of games at the 2010 tournament.