Group C: Colombia looks to bounce back

Group C may have a favorite in Colombia, but the South American side will have to face three teams with vastly different styles of play.

There’s the defensive fortitude of a veteran Greek side, hungry to advance past the group stage for the first time ever. And Africa’s darlings, the Ivory Coast, who boast a few of the most physically gifted players in the tournament.

Then of course, high-flying Japan, who can run rings around anybody with their fast paced, one-touch passing. The Colombians should still take the relatively wide open group, but will have to fight for every point.

How they’ll finish

  1. Columbia
  2. Ivory Coast
  3. Japan
  4. Greece

Colombia

SPI Rank: 6; FIFA World Ranking: 8

2010 World Cup: Did not qualify

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 86.5 percent*

What to drink when watching Colombia: Coke (wink)

The lack of recent World Cup experience doesn’t seem to have affected Colombia, who hadn’t reached a World Cup in 16 years before dominating a highly competitive CONMEBOL region during qualifying.

The loss of indomitable striker Radamel Falcao due to an ACL injury was a tough blow for Los Cafeteros, but Colombia are equipped to deal with the loss, as they have four other highly-capable strikers fighting on the roster.

There’s Teofilo Gutierrez, who scored six goals during qualification, and has scored 11 times in 28 appearances for the national team.

Or Jackson Martínez, coming off a dominant season at FC Porto, scoring a whopping 20 goals in only 29 appearances.

And don’t forget about the man they call the “South American Cristiano Ronaldo“, 22-year old winger James Rodriguez, the former captain of the Under-20 squad who led France’s Ligue 1 in assists this year with 12.

Although they boast an impressive list of attacking options, Colombia win their matches on the strength of the defense.

In a South American qualifying region with potent attacking teams galore, Colombia allowed the least goals of any team during CONMEBOL qualifying, allowing 13 through in 16 matches.

Couple this with a talented midfield that  finished second in qualifying in pass completion percentage, and you have a team that lacks a glaring weakness.

Some will say the dearth of World Cup experience is the only thing that could stop this highly talented Colombian side from a run at the World Cup. One thing’s for certain however: If they can carry over the form they showed during qualifying, Columbia could win the entire thing.

Greece

SPI Rank: 26; FIFA World Ranking: 12

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 46.7 percent

What to drink when watching Greece: Ouzo — A anise-flavored aperitif (pre-meal beverage) that is extremely popular with Lesbians. The island of Lesbos are one of the largest producers of Ouzo today.

Greece enter their second World Cup in as many tries, yet only their third in history. Their scrappy style of defensive football was enough to put them through after a playoff win against Romania, but the Greeks will have to best much stiffer competition if they hope to make any noise in Brazil.

Ethniki’s strategy of creating a fortress defensively — keeping at least eight men behind the ball — complements their older personnel. Greece are one of the oldest sides in the tournament, with six players over the age of 30, including 37-year-old midfield captain, Giorgos Karagounis.

Greece isn’t completely inept going forward however, with all eyes on striker Kostas Mitroglu, who recently signed a nearly $20 million transfer fee at London’s Fulham FC, a club record.

He will be supported by Celtic star Georgios Samaras up the middle, and on the left flank by highly-aggressive left-back José Holebas.

Greece’s bruising tactics and can stifle even the most fluid passing teams with their commitment staying organized. Nobody is expecting Greece to go very far in Brazil, but nobody expected them to win the European Championship in 2004, so underestimate Greece at your own risk.

Ivory Coast

SPI Rank: 16; FIFA World Ranking: 23

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 46.9 percent

What to drink when watching Ivory Coast: Bangui — A wine made of palm oil with a “milky-white look” that is somehow both sweet and bitter. It mind sound disgusting but it tastes … well, I actually have no idea how it tastes.

Is this the year Les Éléphants will finally live up to their potential? In the past two World Cups, the Ivorians have been picked to advance the farthest of the African teams, only to suffer two consecutive group stage defeats.

Yes, they were unlucky to draw two consecutive groups of death, but the same excuse can not be made for runner-up finishes in the last two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments after being favored to win both times.

The Ivory Coast has some sublime talent both young and old. The heroic Didier Drogba is still the target man up front, who’s decorated international career has seen the Chelsea legend score 62 goals in 98 games in international play.

But while he’s still their leader, Drogba may no longer be the best striker on the Ivorian roster. Wilfred Bony is coming off two extremely lucrative goal scoring seasons for scoring 16 for Swansea this season and an unbelieveable 31 in 30 games for Dutch side Vitesse in 2012-2013.

Bony is one of the coolest customers in front of goal, and rarely, if ever misses the target when given the space to fire away.

Then there’s Yaya Toure, the country’s best player by a significant margin, and the best box-to-box midfielder in the world. Toure is the closest thing international soccer has to LeBron James: A physical gifted athlete who excels in every aspect of the game.

Toure is an top-class dribbler, passer and finisher, known for 80-yard slaloming runs down the middle of the pitch and pinpoint accuracy in front of goal.

He scored 20 goals in a central midfield role this year for Manchester City, a team with a myriad of attacking options. Toure has been arguably the most important player on City’s 2012 and 2014 Premier League winning sides.

Les Éléphants are not the most organized side, and usually look like coach Sabri Lamouchi just told them to run out and kick it about. The lack of a concrete tactical plan may be the reason the Ivory Coast has trouble stringing together consistent performances.

If they ever do, the Ivorians have enough talent and physical prowess to knock anybody around, and maybe this is finally the tournament they can find their quality.

Japan

SPI Rank: 36; FIFA World Ranking: 46

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Round of 16

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 20.1 percent

What to drink when watching Japan: Warm sake — “Very gooooood!”

Call them “Spain-light”, the Japanese employ their own brand of the Iberians one-touch “tiki-taka” style.

While they were unable to gain a single point in last summers Confederations Cup, Japan excited with a rambunctious attack predicated on the pin point passing of a talented midfield a group,  that also managed to score 13 goals during qualifying.

Shingi Kagawa did not feature heavily during Manchester United’s disaster of a season and did not manage to score, but Kagawa will partner with Keisuke Honda for Japan as duel scoring and goal creating threats.

Honda may actually be the better player of the two at the moment. The recent AC Milan signee scored an average of a goal every 101 minutes during World Cup qualifying and is one of the premier free kick specialists in the tournament.

He will act as Japan’s  No. 10, playing behind striker Shinji Okazaki, who knocked home 8 goals of his own during qualification. Okazaki will need to shoot more in Brazil however, as he only managed 14 shots in seven games during the 2010 World Cup and last summer’s Confederations Cup.

Lucky for us, regardless of Japan’s results they will play exciting football. Japan allowed three goals a game during the Confederations Cup (against Brazil, Italy and Mexico, but still) and will have another quick exit if that stays consistent.

But if they can find away to tighten up defensively — especially on set pieces — Samurai Blue have an attack that can carve through even the most disciplined back line. In a wide open group, Japan have a real shot.

* Percentages based on 10,000 simulations of the six group games using ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.