If it wasn’t for the presence of Colombia and Ivory Coast in this group, it would be a rather dull looking affair pitting Greece against Japan. The presence of an up-and-coming outside-tipped Colombian side and an Ivory Coast team peppered with stars, makes it a somewhat more appealing prospect. It’s still a bit of a chore to write an in-depth piece about each team, so hopefully this will be as brief as it is uninformative.
Colombia go into the tournament ranked #4 in the world. They seem to be everybody’s outside tip for the tournament, apart from those going with Chile or Uruguay. They are drawing plenty of support from their South American-ness and that statistic about the failure rate of European teams when they travel to the Americas for tournaments. But that shouldn’t gloss over their genuine qualities and impressive qualification campaign. Just before Spain’s victory in an all–European final at the last World Cup, I argued that the Copa America and the testing world cup qualification campaigns for South American teams meant that those battle-hardened squads had a distinct advantage in modern international football. That is presumably no truer now than it was then but this team has played Argentina, Chile and Uruguay in competitive matches in the last 12 months, that can only help1 their preparation for this tournament.
[SIZE=3]1 or hinder[/SIZE]
The great Faryd Mondragon is the oldest player (42) at the 2014 World Cup but his best years are presumably long since behind him and so David Ospina of Nice (for now anyway, he’s not signing a new contract with them) will start in goals.
Mondragon will at least have conversation partners for discussions on the Liberal Party’s government of Colombia in the early 1980s. Atalanta’s Mario Yepes and Cruz Azul’s Luis Perea are two veterans in the Colombian defence. Yepes left Milan in search of more regular football last season and found that at Atalanta where he has been a fixture in their defence. He hasn’t lost his spot at international level either, he scored twice in Colombia’s 1-2 win in Paraguay in October that sealed their second place finish. He could be paired in central defence with Perea, a veteran with a distinguished career at Atletico Madrid behind him, but Cristian Zapata of Milan is more likely to play there. There is an abundance of Colombian attacking full backs at the moment –Camilo Zuniga of Napoli is a fine right-sided player (with Zapata and Arias as back-ups) with West Ham’s Pablo Armero the most obvious selection on the left. Keep an eye out for Eder Balanta of River Plate who will probably not play but who is a terrific young prospect according to an article I found but can no longer retrieve.
Colombia have a couple of solid defensive midfielders in Elche’s Carlos Sanchez and Toulouse’s Abel Aguilar. Assuming they only go with one of those two options, Sanchez seems to be marginally preferred by coach José Pekerman these days. Fredy Guarín should have creative responsibility alongside either holding player but he has seemed to struggle to earn the manager’s trust at both club and international level and it’s possible that Aguilar and Sanchez might be asked to play together in a far less silky midfield.
Los Cafeteros have switched between a 4-2-2-2, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-1-1 in qualifying but it’s the first formation that is most likely. While Falcao is the most heralded of their players, the attacking midfielders have been most crucial to their success recently and James Rodriguez stands alone here. He followed Falcao to Porto and to Monaco, becoming an integral player for his last 3 clubs even though he’s only 22. Colombia’s swift attacking style is dependent on getting James on the ball where he can showcase his masterful skills. The other attacking midfielder will be Juan Cuadrado of Fiorentina who has benefited from not moving to Saudi Arabia, unlike Macnelly Torres, his main rival for that position.
The fitness of Falcao is still a mystery to me, mostly because I haven’t looked into it at all, but it is apparently ever more unlikely that the Monaco striker will feature in the World Cup. This leaves a huge hole for Colombia to fill but they’re not short on options and Jackson Martinez is a more than capable replacement. The Porto striker is big and physical and talented and a much better alternative to Falcao than most other countries could muster up. Luis Muriel of Udinese and Carlos Bacca of Sevilla are very decent options to partner him but the most likely option is Teofilo Gutierrez of River Plate. Teo has had a colourful career, probably capped by producing an imitation rifle in the dressing room after a Racing game, an offence for which he was sacked. He managed 7 goals in qualifying, showing sufficient form to earn a starting spot at this tournament.
Colombia aren’t going to win this World Cup but they should find this group fairly easy to navigate. They have the best squad, even without Falcao, they are playing (relatively) close to home and they were impressive in qualifying.
Prediction: 1st place
If you’re still reading this you can stop now. That lengthy preview piece on Colombia exhausted all my patience and my willingness to google obscure players. My wits are dimmed by trying to find new ways of saying the same thing on topics I know little or nothing about. This is going to be brief and skimpy: like one of those new-fangled miniskirts that those Catholic Democrats are up in arms about.
Ivory Coast are not renowned for their goalkeeping strength so let’s just skip right past their Tupac doppelganger entirely. Kolo Touré will be partnered by Didier Zokora in an elderly and unconvincing central defence. Touré didn’t solve Liverpool’s defensive woes this season and Zokora is a natural central midfielder who appears to be without a club after leaving Trabzonspor recently. This was a novel idea when Gary Breen came up with it in 2002 but now it seems every second defender in the tournament is looking for work. If Zokora is overlooked then Sol Bamba will slot in to make basic errors there instead. The experienced Arthur Boka is the first choice left back and one of the other squad members will surely play at right back.
There is an impressive look about the Cote d’Ivoire midfield. Yaya Touré will be his unstoppable self against the minnows before tweaking his hamstring against Colombia2 and limping around the pitch for 5 minutes, soaking up the close-ups, grimacing in the direction of the bench (and the cameras) before walking slowly to the sideline, a hero conquered not by other mortal humans but by the gods who cursed him with muscle injuries that seem to flare up when things are going wrong for him. Newcastle’s Cheick Tioté seems like the obvious choice to play alongside Touré so that’s probably what Sabri Lamouchi (star of Championship Manager 97/98 and current Ivory Coast boss) will opt for. Max Gradel, a bit of a journeyman around England but now with St Etienne will be one of the wingers. There doesn’t seem to be another winger in the squad unless Hannover’s Didier Ya Konan can play there.
[SIZE=3]2. Of course I haven’t checked the order of the matches. They may be playing Colombia first.[/SIZE]
There is a glut of attacking options for Ivory Coast, making me wonder if in fact they might be playing some class of a 4-3-3. Didier Drogba is their talisman and captain but in truth they’d probably be better off with him on the bench. Wilfried Bony supported by Gervinho and/or Salomon Kalou is a strong attack. Seydou Doumbia is a capable alternative to Bony for that central role. If they get a set piece with a couple of minutes remaining and need a goal, one might be tempted to bring on Drogba then. Though the presence of Lacina Traoré on the bench means he may not even be the best impact sub option. It’s hard to think that Drogba won’t start, it’s just difficult to argue why he should.
Summing up the above would be just repeating what has already been written so just call them decent.
Prediction: 2nd place
The following is a list of Japanese players you will be familiar with, and a very quick reminder on why you are familiar with them:
Yuto Nagatomo: diminutive left back with Internazionale who is a talented player.
Shinji Kagawa: diminutive creative attacking midfielder who gets shunted out to the wing for Manchester United.
[*]Keisuke Honda: non-diminutive attacking midfielder with a very good set piece who moved to Milan in January.
The following is a list of Japanese players you are probably not familiar with, but with whom you should feign some familiarity to boost your credibility in conversations:
Atsutu Uchida: diminutive right back who plays for Schalke with ever-decreasing regularity.
Yasuhito Endo: diminutive central midfielder who has played his entire club career in Japan but has been a fixture in the Japan national team for years.
Makoto Hasebe: non-diminutive central midfielder who has 150 odd Bundesliga appearances to his name and will captain the side.
Shinji Okazaki: diminutive striker for Mainz who will be Japan’s main goal threat.
The following is a list of Japanese players you probably forgot about:
[*]Maya Yoshida: non-diminutive centre back with Southampton who doesn’t play all that much.
The following is a list of errors not to make when discussing this team:
Avoid stereotypes, such as presuming the entire team are small men.
You may hear a gentleman named Hotaru Yamaguchi. That is not the same name as those electronic pets. They were Tamagotchi.
Where they will finish:
I’m just not bothered writing about Greece at all. Thousands of years of civilisation and they don’t even have one World Cup to their name. Giorgos Samaras is moving on and all my interest in this workmanlike team has just moved on with him.
If you must know, they will have a lad who plays with Granada in goals. They have a couple of passable defenders but are without Kyriakos Papadopoulos3 who is the best of them. Sokratis isn’t awful but he’s a bit reckless, Torosidis is more versatile than brilliant and the others are very average indeed. Karagounis and Katsouranis are still knocking around the squad and both will probably feature in midfield. They did a wonderful job in Euro 2004 but that must have been close to 10 years ago now and those two are in their mid 30s. Samaras will offer them some unpredictable running from wide behind whichever of Gekas (old and disimproving), Mitroglou (miserable time since January) or Salpingidis (old and not very good) gets the nod to play as the central striker.
[SIZE=3]3. Uninteresting aside: there are three Papadopouli who had a chance of making this squad and none are included.[/SIZE]
Prediction: 4th place