ColombiaThe South American team have been billed as one of the pre-tournament dark-horses. Indeed, they are a team playing with panache, self-belief and are blessed with attacking resources. First things first, they have Radamel Falcao, a truly world class striker who is capable of single-handedly mutilating insecure defences – watch out, Ivory Coast and Japan! Falcao is the protagonist but he’s supported by a copious, understated cast. There’s Monaco’s lovely left footer James Rodriguez, the trickery of Juan Cuadrado, Macnelly Torres, whose ability to execute a through ball is divine, and then the lightning-quick Pablo Armero and Juan Camillo Zuniga, two of the best attacking full-backs in the world. And that's just a few of the cast.
Defensively there appears to be problems – an ageing centre-back duo in Mario Yepes (37 years old, who will be 38 at the WC) and Luis Perea (34, who will be 35), for example – which the Ivory Coast’s fruitful forward line may be able to take advantage of. The remedy to defensive solidity may lie in the precocious man-child Eder Balanta, but the consensus is that, at just 20 years old and only having received his first call up last month, it’s probably too much too soon for the River Plate defender to force his way into the starting XI.
The dark-horse teams Colombia have taken to tournaments have had a reputation for, more often than not, not meeting the lofty expectations of their acolytes. In Argentine coach Jose Pekerman, who is set to lead them to their first World Cup since 1998, they have an experienced coach who has proven he can cope with the expectations. Notably, the Argentina team that was under his management at the 2006 World Cup and, centred around the stilled laxity of Juan Roman Riquelme and in-my-own-time forward forays of Juan Pablo Sorin, played some irresistible football.
Since the World Cup draw has been made a growing factor the analytical have started to consider has been the acclimatisation of teams to the humidity. With Colombia situated near Brazil, Pekerman’s side should have little problem acclimatising, not to mention bringing with them large fanfare.
The Verdict: At this point in time, they have the most well-balanced team in the group and, though Ivory Coast are capable of beating them, it’s hard to foresee it.
Spoiling tournament hosts’ aspirations/parties? Check. Consistently beating more heralded sides they shouldn’t be beating? Check. Boring everyone to death with their dour brand of football? Check. This Greece team may not have menacing names on paper (unless you factor in the number of characters of the names), but they have been certified wind-up merchants for the best part of the last decade or so.
The success hasn’t come through helter skelter organisation. With every intention of being patronising, Greece are perhaps the living embodiment of how far you can go with organisation and defensive resilience in football.
Of course, it was their defence that acted as the foundation for their disgusting Euro 2004 triumph, and that defence still remains in tact albeit with a different cast. Along with Croatia, they were the stingiest in front of goal out of all the European qualifiers – Greece registered just 12 goals during their 10 group stage games in qualifying. Meanwhile, only letting in 4 goals, they also had one of the meanest defences – only Spain conceded less (3 goals).
Nevertheless this Greece team is mind-numbingly boring. Their cool factor is exclusively heightened by the bit-part presence of the evergreen Georgios ‘The Greek Scholes’ Karagounis who is a crafty little player. He also has the pleasure of being very good friends with the regal, ultramega cool Derek Boateng. How cool can one man get?
The red-hot form of Olympiacos striker Kostas Mitroglu means that, perhaps for the first time since the days of a fully functioning Angelos Charisteas, Greece are seriously capable of nicking a goal on the counter attack.
The Verdict: They remain fiercely stubborn, particularly in the face of adversity, so every team in the group will have to approach with caution. When you’re not conceding many you always have a chance, and when you’re supplemented with a striker who is gobbling up goals then that chance is only elongated.
As poor as Ivory Coast’s defending can be, Japan’s defending is even worse. Incredibly, despite being managed by an Italian coach – Alberto Zaccheroni – this affable, level-headed group of players have been unable to grasp the very basics of defending. The instinctive reaction would be to brand Zaccheroni tactically naive, but he was defensively renowned in Italy and the words “Italian coach” preceded by “tactically naive” obviously make an oxymoron, so it’s best to blame the players.
When they’re on their game, Japan are the type of side capable of converting mere bystanders to cheer their side on vehemently. Indeed, they possess a superabundance of attack-minded midfielders – Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Takashi Inui, Yoichiro Kakitani, to name a few – whose appreciation of space and weight of the through balls means they are capable of dissecting any defence in the world on their day. Even TP Mazembe’s.
At the last World Cup, they were a tight, functional unit with a collectivistic system that was catered for the brilliance of Keisuke Honda to motor them on. Moreover, they had the aerially dominant Tulio, one of the standout players at the tournament, to make up for their lack of size. The accommodation of their recent supply line of the attack-minded players have made Japan much easier on the eye but even easier to break through. With the Ivory Coast possessing the brawn to physically impose themselves as well as the unforgiving strikers to convert the chances that will duly arise, they’re hardly opposition that will leave les Elephants quaking in their boots.
The Verdict: Penetration and goals won’t be a problem for this side, but if they are to be taken more seriously they need to cover the gaps in their defence. For all the dynamism and creativity in their forward ranks, they also come with the worst defence in the group.