Alex McInnes discusses what to expect from Group C at the 2014 World Cup.
Colombia, Greece, Cote D’Ivoire, Japan
‘Los Cafeteros’ or ‘The Coffee Growers’ to you and me, finished second in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification group, just two points behind first placed Argentina. When I think of Colombia I generally picture Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla or René Higuita but this team is a very different animal indeed. Of late Colombia have been enjoying something of slight resurgence in fortunes and in terms of the quality of players coming through. Just take a look at their squad and there is a huge abundance of talent, even with Radamel Falcao looking likely to miss the World Cup after picking up a nasty knee injury on duty for Monaco. This group is probably the most unpredictable out of the lot but based on their recent progress I would vouch for Colombia as group winners. Managed by Argentine José Pékerman and captained by the evergreen Mario Yepes (38), Colombia really have strength in depth. Keep your eyes out for the much sought after young centre back Éder Álvarez Balanta, Fredy Guarín, Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, James Rodríguez, Jackson Martínez of Porto and the tricky Udinese forward Luis Muriel. Anything but progression from the group would be a total failure this summer.
The Greeks are always an unpredictable bunch. Who would have foreseen that triumph ten years ago at Euro 2004? Rather surprisingly this will only be their third appearance at a World Cup finals. Forever a busy, bustling and physically strong team, Greece finished second in their UEFA qualification group to first placed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that was only on goal difference but then again the standard of teams in the group were not exactly the best in terms of competitiveness. ‘Ethniki’ are currently managed by the Portuguese Fernando Santos and have been since 2010. Greece’s problem in recent years has been relying on the remnants of their 2004 ‘annus mirabilis’ squad, the old guard. You always need experience at the big tournaments but you also need to throw in some youngsters and let them show their stuff. Still captained by the talismanic Giorgos Karagounis, who still is a key player for them, the other guys to look out for this summer will be Kostas Manolas, Panagiotis Kone of Bologna, Giannis Fetfatzidis, Celtic and former Manchester City winger-cum-striker Giorgos Samaras and the man up top, Kostas Mitroglou. This group really is an open and fair fight and Greece really should use that as incentive for progression.
‘Les Éléphants’ finished top of their second round CAF qualification group then beat Senegal over two legs (4-2) in the third round playoff section to to secure their passage to Brazil. This summer will signal Ivory Coast’s third successive appearance at a World Cup finals. Managed by ex- France international and Inter Milan midfielder Sabri Lamouchi, their main goal will be to qualify out of the group stage for the first time, which would really show some progression. With Yaya Touré in the form of his life this season there is no reason for ‘Les Éléphants’ not to make it out of this group. Still captained by the heroic Didier Drogba at the age of 36, Ivory Coast have a real blend of experience, technique and pace that should make for some really lively games against Colombia, Greece and Japan at least, and hopefully against more teams. The main guys for the will obviously be the aforementioned Drogba and Touré but it would be silly to forget the likes of Serge Aurier, Cheick Tioté, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho and Swansea’s key man this year, Wilfried Bony.
The ‘Blue Samurai’ are a team I always look forward to watching at World Cups, mainly due to the fact that they always seem to qualify, well every year since 1998 at least anyway. Twice they have made it out of the group stages to the round of 16 and twice they have failed to do so, so it really is an even keel for the Japanese. Japan have the rarity of continuity, in terms of management. Italian Alberto Zaccheroni has been in charge since 2010 and he has done a very good job during his tenure and his most notable feat was winning the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, defeating Australia thanks to an extra time goal thanks to ex-Southampton striker Tadanari Lee. Technically the Japanese are always very good, some might say exquisite but I find their downfall is usually their physicality, or lack of. That is not meant as a stereotyping dig at Japan but in most of the games of theirs that I have seen, they tend to get out muscled and bullied off the ball quite regularly. Qualification from the group really is anybody’s at this stage obviously but I think Japan have a fantastic chance of making the last 16 if they can hit their full potential. Key players include; Yūto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, the record cap holder at 141 appearances, Yasuhito Endō, captain Makoto Hasebe, Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and both Hiroshi Kiyotake and Shinji Okazaki who play their football in Germany for Nürnberg and Mainz 05, respectively.