Colombia (4th in FIFA, 6th in ELO) / Greece (10th FIFA / 17th ELO) / Côte d’Ivoire (21st FIFA / 21st ELO) / Japan (47th FIFA / 25th ELO)
June 14 Colombia v Greece June 14 C d’Ivoire v Japan
June 19 Colombia v C d’Ivoire June 19 Japan v Greece
June 24 Japan v Colombia June 24 Greece v C d’Ivoire
Group winner v Group D R-up / Group R-up v Group D winner
Of all the groups this year, only one has every team playing each other for the first time in the World Cup, and that is group C – teams from 4 different continents too, so that means no traditional rivalries, either, so it’s a brave new world for these teams. That’s not to say there has been no top level battles at all – Japan have faced both Colombia and Greece in successive Confederations Cup group stages, losing to the former and beating the latter – hardly something that will create a rivalry as much as a World Cup tie will. And with it looking like a fairly even group, those rivalries could be big at the end of it.
Colombia have been playing great football under José Pékerman, so much so that he has been South American Coach of the Year for both of the years he has been in charge. Ranked 4th this month by FIFA, and 6th on the ELO, Colombia are clearly a potential contender. They were ranked 17th, but very highly rated in 1994, and that turned out to be a first disaster, and then a tragedy. They will be well aware of that this time, but will still fancy their chances, and probably with good reason: they have been getting good results, and the squad is among their best ever, with a greater depth and more even level of quality, if fewer superstars than the class of Valderrama, Huigita et al. It does look like they’ll probably be missing their biggest name as Radamel Falcao is injured, but this is a chance for Jackson Martínez, on course to be top scorer in Portugal with Porto for the second season running. With service coming from Inter’s much-in-demand Fredy Guarín, they are a formidable attacking side. Their chances improved greatly with news that versatile defender Juan Camilo Zúñiga recovering from a knee injury for Napoli this month; he’ll likely link up with 38 year old “Super” Mario Yepes in the center, for whom the World Cup is his footballing final bow. This could be their best shot yet – I would not be unhappy to see them go the whole way, and they should win the group.
FIFA rate Japan lowly right now, in February they were at their lowest since 2000: for me, this says plenty about the FIFA rankings. Anyone who saw them in the Confederations Cup knows better: particularly from the second game, when they were heartbreakingly defeated by Italy by the odd goal in 7 in the last 5 minutes of a game they had the better of. Similarly, their recent games in November against Belgium and the Netherlands, showed an exciting attack, and organization enough to come back from Europe with a win and a draw. Under the vastly experienced Italian manager, Alberto Zaccheroni since 2010, the Blue Samurai have made strides to build on their second round showing in South Africa. First team to qualify, this may be the Japanese golden generation, and with Yasuhito Endō, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Kagawa in midfield and Shinji Okazaki up top they’re exciting to watch, and a major part of why they are he current Asian and East Asian champions. As ever, it is the men at the back who will be important, and that line is likely to feature the odd mix of Konno from Gamba Osaka in the J-League partnering with Schalke’s Uchida, Inter’s stalwart Nagatomo and Southampton’s Yoshida. Japan has a have a lot of experienced players, even if some are still quite young, and this could be their big breakthrough.
Cote d’Ivoire have long been knocking on the door, and this is the last chance for many of their Golden Generation – at least 9 of the likely squad – 8 probable starters, and most of their top class players – will be over 30, and this will be their last chance on the world stage. Indeed, a couple of them – notably Didier Zokora – had already retired before Sabri Lamouchi took over in May 2012. However, despite fears that the best was behind, the Elephants drove through qualification, leading to the return of many for the playoffs. They still have a lot of quality, with Drogba, Kalou, the Tourés et al., and they should be able to put on something of a show. Indeed, much of their quality is up front, with players like William Bony of Swansea, and Max Gradel of St. Etienne being capable of joining in on the attack. Sadly, their potential defensive line is either over 30 or short of experience, so I can’t see them progressing beyond the group stages. With that in mind, I am hoping that they take a risk and give some of their youth a chance, particularly Souleymane Coulibaly, (19 year old former African Young Player of the Year). Either way, I hope they play to their strengths and come out to attack.
If you had told me the composition of this group 6 months ago, I would have said that it had 3 exciting teams and Greece, especially looking at their form in the qualifiers. However, the football they produced against Romania in the playoff suggests that they can do it on occasion – whether they do it at the top level remains to be seen. The Portuguese coach Fernando Santos has been in charge for 4 years and led them to the quarter finals of Euro 2012. They are strong and competent, and ground out the results they needed in qualifying. Clearly, we can expect Greece to keep games tight, at the back. Up front, Kostas Mitroglou should be a joy to watch (if sitting on the bench in the EPL basement hasn’t destroyed his confidence). With Celtic legend, Giorgio Samaras, or the talismanic Dimitris Salpingidis alongside him, they have a decent forward line. However, it is hard to see where the inspired passes needed to unlock any of these defences could come from for them. They’ll probably look to winger Giannis Fetfatzidis, known as the Greek Messi, to have a big World Cup debut for them to have any success in a fairly even group.
Being Irish, Martin French will have a different perspective on the World Cup: by all means challenge him on twitter @bluebeardrex. This article incorporates elements of Martin’s column for the Waterford United matchday program with new material specifically for The Coopers.