A Falcao-less free-for-all
Just as any hopes that Radamel Falcao would play in the World Cup have evaporated, so too has any true interest or consideration for the results of Group C. Looking ahead to the knockout stages, the top two point-getters (from a pool of England, Italy, and Uruguay) from Group D will voraciously pounce on the two teams from a much weaker Group C selection. This outlook has become increasingly more likely after the Colombian goal-scoring machine in Falcao was ruled out, meaning Group C teams will have most if not all their successes playing against each other.
But even with the AS Monaco striker unavailable, Colombia persists as one of the most talented teams, composed of players moonlighting on clubs around the world, in the group. Only in their projected starting lineup, Los Cafeteros have players on clubs based in France, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and Portugal; with a tourney like the World Cup that includes sides from five different continents, this list of clubs translates into familiarity with a wide array of international competition for the Colombians, who enter as prepared and tested as any other team in the group.
The team’s offensive firepower stems from the talented forward duo of Teofilo Gutierrez–the highest goal-scorer during qualifiers that will play in Brazil–and F.C. Porto’s Jackson Martinez. The midfielding corps is just as integral to the explosive Colombian offense, that posted fantastic CONMEBOL qualifying numbers: in addition to amassing 30 points, Los Cafeteros led the zone with 96 shots on target, as well as placed second in both pass completion percentage and assists.
As a whole, the team will rely heavily on pushing up–and moving out of a shaky defensive third of the field–as much as they can, allowing the midfielders and attackers to possess the ball and create chances. Thus, Colombia thrives on the counterattack, and without Falcao around which the offensive previously revolved, will try to get the most out of quickly driving the ball up-field out of connections from several competent and reliable players.
While Colombia has awaited a WC return for a lengthy 16 years, the Ivory Coast has finally arrived on something even more elusive: a non-deathtrap group. In their last two World Cup appearances that marked the first in their history, the Ivorians have had horrible luck with draws; in 2006 they came in third facing the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands, and had the same result in 2010, but against Brazil and Portugal, another power-tandem containing both a South American team and European one. But now that they’ve finally been placed on even grounds with their opposition, and despite all the clamor about their age, the team will jump on this perfect opportunity.
A point-black miss on goal–by opposing Senegal in the final round of African qualification–away from not travelling to Brazil, the Ivory Coast have put their narrow escape behind them, and will enter the tourney guided by a group of seasoned veterans, once deemed the country’s golden generation and still remain among Africa’s best players. Operating as the linchpin that allows other talented members on the team to actually mesh well together, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure will showcase his scoring and passing proficiency, impose himself physically with his tackling (epitomizing an overall sizable and strongly-built side), and speedily patrol the field from box-to-box in group play.
The 31-year old plays alongside a larger group of forwards–most of which fall back to a more midfielding area–that includes the seemingly ageless Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou (who clinched the team’s WC qualification), and Gervinho, all contributing to the team’s fast-paced attack. It’s important to note that three of the six projected starters that play MF/F are between 27 and 28 years old, and by also acknowledging the near certainty of Y. Toure not running out of stamina, the doubts linked to this team’s age are a overblown. Furthermore, the Ivory Coast have the skillful 25-year old Wilfried Bony at their disposable, either as substitute or even as starter, having shined at the EPL level for Swansea City scoring 16 goals the last season. So upon closer inspection, the perceived weakness of old age is exaggerated more than anything, and should instead factor in as experience that will prove valuable in the early-going of the tournament. Adding in the international exposure of most of the Ivorians (all but one currently play for European clubs), and the significance of Drogba’s last hurrah on this international stage, Les Elephants should finally make the leap that the world and their continent have long counted on, and emerge as victors of Group C.
Some concern arises with the defensive unit, but even in this area of the pitch, there is strong experience; as long as Kolo Toure (older brother of Yaya) leads a similar effectiveness seen during qualifiers (surrendering just five goals), the back line should not impede the Ivory Coast’s path to winning the group.
Two respectable challengers
Of course, parity abounds in Group C, making Japan and Greece almost as strong contenders who surely will pick up a good amount of points. Japan, known as the Samurai Blue, has become very technical, and have displayed the capacity to score goals in large numbers during qualification. A.C. Milan’s Keisuke Honda runs in the middle of Japan’s push forward and operates as the most important organizer on the team’s offense; the attacking midfielder also embodies the creative and dynamic style of the Samurai Blue, whose terrific ball movement can pose serious challenges to fellow group teams. Yet a Confederations Cup performance woefully exposed Japan, its defensive line not nearly up to par (yielding nine goals in three games in that tourney), especially on set pieces. Both Colombia and the Ivory Coast are well-equipped to capitalize on this Japanese deficiency, with an increased vulnerability playing against the Ivorians due to Japan’s general small frame.
Finally, Greece is one of the most defensively-oriented teams in the world; every Group C squad will struggle agonizingly against the Greeks for some duration during their games against them, and at least one game should conclude in a tie. The defensive corps allowed just four goals during group stages of UEFA qualification (and two more during a two-game playoff with Romania), physically outlasting and out-working opponents, and will once again lead the charge–and be critical to any slim, knockout stage hopes–in Brazil. While the Greek striking attack contains big, effective goal-scorers, the midfield rarely works creatively and does not have much pace. Overall, the offense is inconsistent and will not keep up with prolific goal-scoring efforts from other group teams, which will eventually break through the team’s defensive wall for some goals.
Key match: Ivory Coast vs. Japan, June 14th
1) Ivory Coast (6 points)
2) Colombia (5 points)
3) Japan (4 points)
4) Greece (1 point)