Definitely the tightest group in the tournament, all four teams will be disappointed with anything less than qualification for the last 16. This group of under-achievers could prove to be the most exciting in the competition, with any team capable of beating another.
Despite injury ruling out star striker Radamel Falcao, the odds to top the group are still stacked in Colombia’s favour. Jose Pekerman will be hoping to overturn Colombia’s poor record at the World Cup by leading them out of the group stage for only the second team in what will be their sixth tournament. Expectation back home is high, with the country sitting a lofty fifth in the Fifa World Rankings. The current lot have been profiled as the country’s finest squad in 25 years, bettering the ’94 squad which contained Higuita, Valderama and co. Up front Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca have both made strong claims to replace Falcao, with the Argentinian coach favouring Seville front-man Martinez in recent friendlies.
Elsewhere, question marks stand over the ageing centre half pairing of Mario Yepes and Luis Perea, despite an impressive seven clean sheets in 16 qualifying games. James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado will be expected to pull the strings on the flanks, while pacy full backs Pablo Armero and Camilio Zuniga will be looking to bomb forward at every opportunity. Defensively sound, and loaded with powerful strikers, the team who finished second only to Argentina in qualifying are deservedly favourites to top the group, and with the climate on their side, should be looking to progress even further than the last 16 and make a real statement in the tournament
Second favourites in the group, the Ivory Coast certainly have the personnel to progress into the next round. Having started the last five ACON campaigns as favourites, their failure to deliver each time has seen The Elephants develop a reputation as chokers. Time is running out for their golden generation of the Toure brothers, Drogba and Zokora to impress on the international stage. Add to that the remarkable form of winger Gervinho in Serie A this season, as well as Swansea’s Wilfried Bony, Solomon Kalou of Lille and Newcastle midfielder Cheik Tiote, you have a very solid outfit. Team spirit in the camp is at an all time high, while the Africans have only lost four of their 41 games since the last World Cup. They will attempt to mask their lack of a natural playmaker by out-running and out-powering their opponents with a high energy game.
Injury doubts over Kolo Toure could mean a makeshift defence, while the unreliability of goalkeeper Boubacar Barry is a concern for all associated with the Ivory Coast. Notably, the team is based a massive two hours from the nearest airport making an already hectic travel schedule even more distressing. Qualification depends on whether their star players turn up and whether they can hold it together at the back. Capable of beating anyone in the group on their day, their fans will be praying the country’s golden generation can replicate their club form with their country.
Rated as rank outsiders in the group, it’s never easy to predict the Greeks purely because of their defensive solidarity which saw them concede only four goals in their qualifying campaign. Coach Fernando Santos has lost a mere three of 26 games in charge, continuing the country’s tradition of being hard to beat. Key players such as Giorgos Karagounis are on their last legs while Konstantinos Mitroglou has barely played since joining Fulham in January.
The Euro 2004 winners qualified after seeing off Romania in the playoffs, having missed out on the top spot to the free-scoring Bosnians. The first goal in each game will be key – should the Greeks take the lead, the opponent will find it very difficult to find a way back into the game, while should they concede first, their lack of a plan B could be their downfall. No real injury concerns plus little reliance on star quality means the Greeks’ preparations for the event are well underway, however whether they can cope with the high tempo and unique styles of their competition will be crucial to any success they are likely to have. Their fans will be hoping for a repeat of their heroics from 2004, but would probably settle for a last-16 exit.
Having already endured one unsuccessful tournament in Brazil, the Japanese players will be looking to set the record straight after their Confederations Cup exit, having not earned a single point for their efforts, albeit putting in some impressive performances. Zaccheroni’s men have a tendency to over perform against strong teams, beating Belgium and holding the Dutch in recent friendlies, but struggle to unlock stubborn defences that are content to park the bus, as seen in their defeat to Belarus. Critics of their ability to execute their high tempo, high pressing game in the heat weren’t silenced last summer after they took the lead against Italy but eventually tired and finished the game empty handed.
The squad has a strong nucleus, Honda, Kagawa and Okazaki are established regulars while Uchida and Nagatomo in the full-back positions are well respected in the European game. Their biggest liability is the lack of pace at centre half, with neither Yoshida nor Konno being the most reliable, as highlighted in recent games. The Japanese certainly should not be written off, and should they perform like they did last summer they will be good value for a last-16 spot. The question is whether they can maintain their high energy game throughout all three group games, and in any games further in the tournament should they progress.