Teams (world ranking in brackets): Colombia (4), Greece (12), Côte d’Ivoire (17), Japan (48)
Colombia vs Greece, Belo Horizonte
Côte d’Ivoire vs Japan, Recife
Colombia vs Côte d’Ivoire, Brasilia
Japan vs Greece, Natal
Japan vs Colombia, Cuiaba
Greece vs Côte d’Ivoire, Fortaleza
Coach: Jose Pekerman
Captain: Mario Yepes
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1962, 1990, 1994, 1998)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1990)
Qualified: 2nd in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Radamel Falcao (9)
Colombia qualified for the tournament in second, after a qualifying campaign that included a 5-0 win over Bolivia and a 4-0 win over 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay. Their qualification was sealed in an interesting manner, after coming back from 3-0 down to draw with Chile.
The Colombians, like many of the South American sides, have an excellent attack. They have finally worked out how to yield all of Radamel Falcao’s talent, and he scored 9 times over the qualifying campaign. The Monaco striker is ably supported by the likes of Jackson Martinez (Porto), James Rodriguez (Monaco), Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate) and Fredy Guarin (Internazionale). The midfield is also strong and a majority of the players are playing in the stronger European leagues.
The Colombian defence, while still quite strong, is not the best that will be found. Players such as captain Mario Yepes and Luis Ernesto Perea, likely to play as the centre-halves for the tournament, are 38 and 35 respectively, and are well past their prime. This could be an issue, especially if they make it through to the knockout stages of the tournament. The very strong attack of the Côte d’Ivoire will cause issues.
Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Giorgos Karagounis
World Cup Appearances: 2 (1994, 2010)
Best Result: Group Stage: (1994, 2010)
Qualified: 2nd Group G, went on to defeat Romania in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Kostas Mitroglou (5)
The Greeks failed to qualify automatically for the tournament, as Bosnia and Herzegovina smashed them on goal difference to qualify. The Greeks defensive record was brilliant, with only 4 goals conceded in their 10 group stage matches. Two goals to Kostas Mitroglou gave them a 3-1 win in the first leg of their play-off against Romania, and a 1-1 draw in Bucharest sent the Greeks through to their second consecutive World Cup.
The Greek defence has always been strong, and if any side in this group can hold off the Colombian and Ivoirian attacks it would be them. Throughout their 12 qualifying matches the Greeks conceded just 6 goals. This was mainly due to players such as Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Avraam Papadopoulos, Jose Holebas, Ioannis Maniatis, Vasilis Torosidis and Loukas Vyntra. While the attack struggled in the group stage of qualifying, players such as Kostas Mitroglou, Dimitris Salpingidis, Theofanis Gekas and Giorgos Samaras are all top-level players, with Mitroglou in fine touch.
The Greeks only scored 12 goals over their 10 first-round qualifying matches, and it was for this reason that they were condemned to the play-offs. Another concern for the Greeks is the lack of quality they faced in qualifying, with their group consisting of Bosnia and Herzegovina (who dominated), Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Liechtenstein, by no means the standard of the teams they will face in Brazil, meaning they may be shown up. If the attacks of the Côte d’Ivoire and Colombia do penetrate the Greek defence, the attack may struggle to make up the deficit.
Coach: Sabri Lamouchi
Captain: Didier Drogba
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2006, 2010)
Best Result: Group Stage (2006, 2010)
Qualified: 1st Group C, went on to defeat Senegal in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Salomon Kalou (5)
The Côte d’Ivoire passed through the group stage of qualifying easily enough, with two draws against Morocco the only blip on the radar. After being drawn to play Senegal in the play-offs, they beat them 3-1, after a late goal to Cisse gave the Senegalese some respite. Senegal led 1-0 for much of the second leg (played in Morocco due to security issues in Senegal) but a late equaliser to Salomon Kalou all but assured the progress of Les Éléphants.
The Ivoirian attack is very strong, with players such as Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony, Gervinho, Seydou Doumbia, Didier Ya Konan, Arouna Kone and Kalou, who scored 5 goals in qualifying, including the goal that all but sealed qualification for the Côte d’Ivoire. This attack is world class, and with Premier League stars Yaya Toure and Cheick Tiote setting up chances in midfield their attack will be tough to defend against. Another positive for the Ivoirians is the fact that a lot of their players are playing first team football in Europe, with their best players all leading the line at some of the best clubs in Europe.
While the attack is very strong, the defence is the opposite. Goalkeeper Boubacar Barry is not quite at the standard of the best in the world, and he plies his trade at Belgian club Lokeren, who aren’t one of the top clubs. While Liverpool’s Kolo Toure is solid in the centre of defence, there aren’t any other top class defenders available. The side is also ageing, and while this leads to an experienced national set-up, these players are not at their peak but they should be capable of good results in this tournament.
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Captain: Makoto Hasebe
World Cup Appearances: 4 (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
Qualified: 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Shinji Okazaki (8)
Japan received a bye for the first two rounds of AFC qualifying, and after passing through to the fourth round (finishing second in group C behind Uzbekistan), they smashed Oman and Jordan in their first two games (3-0 and 6-0 respectively). While they only scored 7 more goals over their last 6 matches they still finished a comfortable first, with two more wins than any of their opponents.
Japan have been the premier side in Asia for years, and they pulled off some big wins. They are the reigning Asia Cup champions, and they have consistently qualified for the World Cup. The side has strength all over the park, ranging from Eiji Kawashima in goal to Shinji Okazaki up front. Players such as Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe, Yuto Nagatomo, Shinji Kagawa, Atsuto Uchida, Yasuhito Endo and others. The large number of players in big European leagues is another bonus. This is a side with the ability to go far.
While they were strong in qualifying, the Japanese have dropped to 48 in the world rankings. Kagawa, who plies his trade at Manchester United, has played 10 games in total this season, and 3 of those were as a substitute. The depth of the side may also be called into question during this tournament, and despite the top-bracket players at their disposal the Japanese have drawn most of their reserves from the relatively weak J-League. The team’s recent success will also bring with it a weight of expectation, which the Blue Samurai may struggle to match in a tough group.
This will be a very exciting and competitive group. Expect plenty of goals, especially from Colombia and the Côte d’Ivoire, who have some potent attacking forces at their disposal. Expect some exciting and close games, as any combination of teams could progress to the next stage.
1. Côte d’Ivoire, 2. Colombia, 3. Japan, 4. Greece
Next: I preview Group D, where three former champions are set to meet.
PS: I apologise for my recent lack of posts. I will attempt to amend this over the coming months. I hope you enjoy the rest of my world cup preview.