Before the World Cup started, Group C was seen to contain two of the tournament's dark horses in Japan and Colombia. So far, only one team has lived up to the billing. While Colombia have played some of the best football we've seen en route to knockout stage progression, Japan have struggled, and are winless after their first two games.
Alberto Zaccheroni's four-year tenure of the Samurai Blue will almost certainly come to a close at the end of the World Cup, and barring a miracle in the final slate of Group C games, it looks like he'll be bowing out on a bad note. If they're to progress into the knockout stages, they need to beat table-topping Colombia. And, as if that's not a big enough task, they must also hope Ivory Coast's match against Greece goes their way.
Colombia's Last Match
Colombia's Last Match
After Japan ceded the lead against Ivory Coast to lose 2-1 in their World Cup opener, coach Zaccheroni made a few changes to their starting lineup with little reward. For this match, Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa will likely return to his position on the left of their attacking midfield band ahead of Yoshito Ōkubo, who didn't impress in the goalless draw with Greece. Other than that, we're unlikely to see big changes.
However, Colombia boss José Pekerman will likely change a few things up, safe in the knowledge his side would progress even with a defeat. Faryd Mondragón is reportedly in contention to come in for David Ospina in goal, which would make him the all-time oldest player at a World Cup at 43 years old. Elsewhere, Santiago Arias could come in for Pablo Armero at left-back, while Alexander Mejía looks likely to replace defensive midfielder Carlos Sánchez, who would be suspended if he picked up another booking. Finally, Jackson Martínez will hope to displace Teó Gutiérrez up top.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Colombia (4-2-3-1): David Ospina; Santiago Arias, Mario Yepes, Cristián Zapata, Juan Zúñiga; Alexander Mejía, Abel Aguilar; Víctor Ibarbo, James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado; Jackson Martínez.
James Rodríguez vs. the Japan midfield - James Rodríguez could very reasonably claim to have been the most impressive player at the World Cup so far. Operating in an attacking midfield role for Los Cafeteros, he's afforded the freedom to drift around the pitch, creating neat passing triangles with his teammates or dropping deep and playing them through with a Pirlo-esque through-ball from deep. He's the man who stitches everything together through the middle for Colombia, and his mobility makes him a nightmare to mark. If he plays, Japan's top priority should be to keep him quiet.
Japan's Last Match
Japan's Last Match
The wide battle - Both of these sides rely on their fullbacks to provide width going forward, with Japan in particular often playing with Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida high in the opposition half to compensate for their lack of pace and directness in their attacking midfielders. Colombia are pretty similar, but they're better placed to take advantage of Japan's defensive holes than the Samurai Blue are of theirs. The key could well be Juan Cuadrado, a natural winger who has been outstanding out on the right so far this tournament. If he can be found in space behind Nagatomo on the counter-attack, he'll do damage.
Japan's attack vs. themselves - At last year's Confederations Cup, Japan looked incredible. They played with a speed and intricacy that made them look like a serious threat to the big teams. Their attackers moved the ball at a brilliant pace, and their technical skill and mobility dazzled defenders as they danced their way freely across the final third. This year, it hasn't come together at all. Rather than dragging defences apart with intelligent runs, they're running into each others' space. With their lack of attacking width, the play has been narrow, congested and leaden. On paper, they could cause Colombia problems in the final third, but they need to find last year's form to do so.
Japan looked like they had the potential to become a genuine force this time last year, though they've regressed severely. It'd take a remarkable and highly unlikely result here for them to stand any chance of progressing into the knockout stage, with Los Cafeteros likely to feast on their defensive vulnerabilities. 2-0 Colombia.