CUIABA, Brazil -- Three thoughts from Colombia's 4-1 win over Japan in the final game of Group C.
Colombia's class shines through
Cruising through with much in hand, Colombia joined the Dutch in exiting the group stage with a perfect record. The tournament so far could not have gone any better than it has. Breaking news from Natal suggests that they will be facing an opponent without its toothy talisman.
Only an Ivory Coast landslide against the Greeks in Fortaleza that never came to pass would have prevented them travelling to Rio to face a Uruguay team who will almost certainly be lacking the bite of Luis Suarez. In any case, Uruguay made it out of a poor Group D only by the skin of their teeth. Colombia, on the excellent form of their opening two matches, and their superiority in CONMEBOL qualifying, should have enough to reach their first-ever quarterfinals.
Jackson Martinez, a perennial of transfer window speculation, had first showed why he is not Jose Pekerman's choice to replace Radamel Falcao and why a big move from Porto is yet to happen. He exhibited some clumsiness, and committed one horrible first-half miss. However, he enjoyed his first second-half goal, just reward for his diligent refusal to hide.
Confidence flowed through him after that. James Rodriguez, his former colleague at the Portuguese club, played Martinez through on the right, and, after he set himself, his shot into the opposite corner of the net was beautifully struck. Rodriguez augmented his growing reputation with a neat finish after some wondrous footwork to make it 4-1.
Colombia's supporters, less loud than in Brasilia and perhaps becalmed by the cloying heat of late-afternoon Cuiaba, relocated their voices after Martinez's strike. The arrival of dusk brought about something akin to a victory lap for supporters of Los Cafeteros.
There was even time to break records. The loudest applause of the match came when goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon came on as a late sub. At 43, he becomes the oldest player in World Cup history.
This is already Colombia's finest World Cup, and the quiet town of Cuiaba is in for an all-night party. Fans will be painting the town yellow.
Get past Uruguay, and almost the entire Colombian population could be making its way to Fortaleza to face the winner of Brazil vs. Chile, as those South American teams who have dominated the tournament so far get whittled down at the business end.
Pekerman plays the rotation game
Colombia coach Jose Pekerman switched eight players for his team's final group game and then used halftime to switch around his stars.
The fielding of a reserve team allowed Juan Quintero to play in the No. 10 role where his future surely lies. His cameo as a substitute there against Ivory Coast in Brasilia was thrilling, and from the start in Cuiaba, he was involved, always trying to push for space to begin his arrow-like runs into the heart of the Japanese defence. His influence did not sustain, however, and Pekerman was able to bring on James Rodriguez in his stead.
Most managers would kill for the chance to choose between two such burgeoning talents. Pekerman may find himself accommodating both in Rio, while Juan Cuadrado, also withdrawn at halftime, is competing with Arjen Robben to be the best winger in the tournament. Where the Dutchman is about sudden bursts, the Fiorentina man is a sizable and powerful runner, in the style of Antonio Valencia when he was at his best of three years ago, but with far more in the way of tricks.
Cuadrado also takes a mean penalty, as evidenced by his slashing conversion of the spot kick that Yasuyuki Konno conceded when taking Martinez but not the ball in the 17th minute.
Lack of goals cost Japan
This time, Shinji Kagawa was freed by Alberto Zaccheroni. His World Cup was beginning to resemble his predicament at Manchester United. After all went wrong against the Ivorians, it was he who took the fall.
As at United, there is a more reliable creative influence around. AC Milan's Keisuke Honda is a stronger presence, much more at the centre of matters -- he takes most of their dead balls -- while Kagawa's contributions were intermittent, although often threatening.
The cult of Kagawa that demands a central role must be exasperated by his playing out left for club as well as country, even if it was from that position that he carved Japan's best chance of the first half. Cutting in from his flank, his shot had Colombia keeper David Ospina at severe pains.
Honda proved his creative credentials with the cross that found Shinji Okazaki's head with the very last touch of the first half. It was a goal deserved on the balance of play, even if Japan's promising attacks had usually perished as soon as they reached the Colombian 18-yard box.
The lack of a proper striker equal to Europe's and South America's finest has always been a hindrance to Japan's performances on the international stage beyond their continent. The skills are there with Kagawa and Honda, while their actual striker in Yoshito Okubo showed himself a player of definite skill but lacking in the nervelessness required at this level.
His failure in the second half to meet Yuto Nagatomo's excellent cross from the overlap was poor, a golden chance to get back in the game quickly after Martinez's first goal. Okazaki later blew an even better chance when skewing over what was an almost open net.
Japan's failure to emulate their 2010 performance of reaching the second round must rank as total disappointment. Although Colombia have been excellent, Ivory Coast have flopped again. The Greeks, always a stumbling block but lacking in quality, could not be penetrated in that 0-0 draw in Recife with Japan that ranks among this tournament's worst games and are now in the second round.
Failing to score goals is the ultimate reason why Zaccheroni and Japan are heading home. Two goals from three matches was never going to be enough.