A potential darkhorse title candidate for the second consecutive World Cup, Colombia looks to start play on the right foot Tuesday when it faces Japan in the Group H opener for both sides in Saransk.
Colombia lived up to being a trendy pick in Brazil four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals after sweeping through group play and defeating continental rival Uruguay before falling to the host country in the round of eight in controversial fashion as a tying goal was disallowed late.
Los Cafeteros are again led by 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez, who is aided up front by Radamel Falcao, Carlos Bacca and Juan Cuadrado as they look to make a deeper run than their all-time best from four years ago.
Not much is expected from Japan, which is making its sixth straight World Cup appearance after not making the tournament until its maiden showing in 1998. Akira Nishino took over the team in April after Vahid Halilodzic was fired, and the Blue Samurai had an unimpressive string of matches leading up to the World Cup before defeating Paraguay 4-2 in their send-off match last week.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Colombia started the grind of South American qualifying as the highest-ranked team in the FIFA rankings at No. 5 but got off to a slow start and claimed just four points from its first four matches. Like seemingly all of the usual soccer powers on the continent, the Cafeteros had a period of struggle before regrouping, though they did not secure their spot in the World Cup until their final match day with a 1-1 draw at Peru.
This is Colombia’s sixth overall World Cup appearance and its first back-to-back showing since making three straight from 1990-98. The only other time it reached the knockout round before 2014 came in 1990, when it lost to Cameroon in extra time in the round of 16.
Japan punched its ticket to Russia as the top finisher in Group B of Asian qualifying, doing so with a match to spare as its loss to Saudi Arabia on the final matchday allowed the Green Falcons to claim the other automatic spot. Genki Haraguchi scored a team-high four goals in the final round and Japan had 12 different goal-scorers in the 10 matches.
If the pattern of previous World Cup appearances holds, the Blue Samurai would be tipped to reach the knockout round in Russia after doing so as co-hosts in 2002 and again in 2010. In Brazil, they finished last in the group Colombia won, claiming their only point with a scoreless draw versus Greece.
Those two previous runs to the round of 16 mark Japan’s furthest entry in the World Cup.
Both squads are expected to use 4-2-3-1 formations, but it is possible Nishino may go to a five-man backline for Japan after experimenting with it in the run-up of friendlies.
Colombia is backstopped by Arsenal No. 2 David Ospina, who is also the team’s most capped player with 86 international appearances. On the back line, Spurs central defender Davinson Sanchez has been tipped for a big tournament and will team with Yerry Mina, who became the first Colombian player to see action for Barcelona. Veteran defensive midfielders Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar will provide support.
The offense will flow through James and Cuadardo, with the former scoring six goals in Brazil four years ago and the latter supplying pace down the right flank. They will both try to link up with Falcao, who has thrived with Monaco following failed loan stints with both Manchester United and Chelsea, and is also the Cafeteros’ all-time leading scorer with 29 goals.
The strength of the Blue Samurai resides in the spine with Southampton’s Maya Yoshida in central defense and Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa pulling the strings offensively in the midfield. Japan, though, took a huge injury hit when striker Shinji Okazaki suffered a torn calf injury in the win over Paraguay and could be sidelined the entire tournament. The Leicester City forward has 50 goals in international play, good for third all-time.
Nishino also brought along many veterans who could see playing time if things go sideways, including midfielder Keiuske Honda, who could make his third World Cup appearance, and Makato Hasebe, who has 110 caps and is one of three centurions on the team along with Okazaki and defender Yuto Nagatomo (105).
PLAYER TO WATCH
Colombia – James Rodriguez (MF)
More of an attacking midfielder with a forward’s skillset, Rodriguez scored one of the top goals of the 2014 World Cup with an audacious volley in the win over Uruguay in the round of 16 and was man of the match in three of Colombia’s first four matches. He totaled eight goals and 13 assists for Bayern Munich while out on loan from Real Madrid this season and had six in South American qualifying.
Japan – Takashi Inui (MF)
The newly minted Real Betis winger has speed to burn on the left flank, and there will be high entertainment watching him and Cuadardo burn up and down the sidelines. Prior to joining Betis earlier this month, Inui spent the past three seasons with Eibar and had 11 goals in 88 contests.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Colombia reserve forward Carlos Bacca is rumored to want to stay in Villarreal after being loaned out by AC Milan after scoring 15 goals in Spain this past season. Falcao is reportedly being chased by multiple teams, including Premier League side Everton.
Per Ladbrokes, Colombia is a heavy favorite at 7-10 odds, with Japan decided underdogs at 19-4. A draw returns 12-5 odds. For first goal-scorers, Falcao is the front-runner at 7-2, while the aforementioned Bacca is 9-2 and James is right behind the pair at 5-1. Yuya Osako is Japan’s top option at 7-1 odds.
While Colombia is a favorite to return to the knockout round, it is not a straightforward path to the top of Group H as Poland can also stake a claim as the best team of the four. Still, Los Cafeteros have the most starpower in the group, and this is a make-or-break tournament for their golden generation after they made a semifinal exit at the Copa America Centenario.
Rodriguez has been dealing with a lingering calf injury but is expected to be available for this game, and despite being Colombia’s all-time leading scorer, this will be Falcao’s first World Cup appearance after missing out in 2014 due to a torn ACL suffered six months before the tournament.
Japan’s players and coaches have said all the right things about not being discombobulated despite the late coaching change, but no one really seems to know how Nishino will set up his team until he hands in the lineup sheet. Yoshida may be the most important player for the Samurai Blue since he will be primarily tasked with defending Falcao.
Colombia pulled away in the match between the teams four years ago in Ciubaba. Cuardado and Okazaki traded first-half goals, with Cuardado converting from the spot on 17 minutes and Okazaki answering with a diving header just before halftime.
Jackson Martinez then scored the go-ahead goal in the 55th minute and added a second marker eight minutes from time before James completed the scoring one minute from time to complete Colombia’s romp through group play.
While the scoreline won’t be that lopsided this time around, look for Los Cafeteros to start things up with a convincing 2-0 victory.