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Jun 14, 2014

Three Points: Colombia defeat Greece

FC analyst Santi Solari assesses how far Colombia can go in the World Cup.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Three thoughts on Colombia's comfortable 3-0 win over Greece in their opening Group C match of the 2014 World Cup.

1. Colombia are back with a bang

"We've waited since 1998 and the time of [Carlos] Valderrama and [Faustino] Asprilla for this," enthused Oscar Canon from Bogota, one of the 50,000 fans in Belo Horizonte. "Few Colombians will be able to afford to go to the next World Cup finals in Russia or Qatar, so we had to be here."

That's if they qualify. Brazil not needing to qualify for this World Cup was seen as a help to Jose Pekerman's men. Canon was with other Colombian fans creating a party atmosphere in Belo Horizonte before the game.

"It's the first World Cup in South America since 1978 and we're neighbours, we had to come to Brazil," he said. "It took six hours to fly to Sao Paulo and another hour to Belo Horizonte. Most of our fans are flying but some are coming on a bus which takes a week through the Amazon."

ColombiaColombia
GreeceGreece
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The magnificent Mineirao stadium was a sea of yellow, with 50,000 Colombians interspersed with isolated pockets of friendly Greeks proudly branding their national flags and chanting "Hellas." The roar that greeted the Colombians' warm-up was deafening, and the national anthem continued in the stands long after FIFA's version had finished.

Colombia had a dream start with a goal after five minutes, and their players celebrated left-back Pablo Armero's effort by running to their bench and dancing in front of it. The substitutes joined in, and their entire squad looked like life was quite wonderful in the Minas Gerais winter sun. The stoic, slim, suited and silver-haired Argentine coach Pekerman smiled wryly at the madness unfolding in front of him. He's viewed as a saviour in Colombia, the first foreigner to lead the country to the finals, and enjoyed the celebration, carried out in a jubilant manner with which Asprilla would have been proud.

Armero, who was famous for his extravagant celebrations after goals during his time with Fluminense in Brazil, didn't stop his theatrics after the goal. He regularly urged the vast travelling army to make more noise. How they loved him for it, as Colombia started with three goals and three points.

2. Only one team showed intent

Los Cafeteros were missing the goals of their best player, Radamel Falcao, but their main talent lies in attack. Falcao's Monaco teammate James Rodriguez -- or "Hames," as he's known to Colombians -- is an effective playmaker and their star. His left-footed shot on target from outside the area in the 50th minute gave the crowd the lift they needed as Colombian nerves frayed over their slender lead.

Rodriguez created 43 chances in qualifying, more than any other player in the CONMEBOL group, and was central to Colombia's attacking play against Greece -- his corner led to their crucial second. When Colombia clicked, as they did at the start with the early goal, they looked very good.

Colombia don't have sufficient talent to dominate teams at this level for long periods of the game, and with the score at 1-0 Greece always had a chance. The Greeks created few opportunities until Panagiotis Kone forced a diving save from David Ospina in the 45th minute, and they finished the first half the better side.

The Greeks are usually well-organised and thrive on adversity and proving critics wrong. They had 85 minutes to do that, but still showed little attacking adventure, and their defence was muddled.

Pablo Armero broke the deadlock with a deflected effort in the first half and sparked a superb celebration.

Teofilo Gutierrez's 58th-minute goal was deserved, though it shared the scruffy elements of the first, coming when Rodriguez's low corner was flicked towards the back post by Abel Aguilar. The River Plate striker was unmarked and turned the ball in.

The Colombians finally relaxed as their fans hollered "Ole!" and began repeated Mexican waves around the 62,000-capacity bowl, but their side was almost caught napping as the unmarked substitute Theofanis Gekas headed against the bar when he should have scored in the 58th minute.

Success for both would be progressing from the tournament's weakest group. Greece were winless in 1994 and managed only a solitary victory in the 2010 finals, and this was a first finals game for Colombia in 16 years. Only one side showed sufficient intent in Belo Horizonte, and they were justifiably rewarded. When Rodriguez scored the third in injury time, a side-footed shot after an assist from Juan Cuadrado, it was party time.

3. Greece must improve quickly

Without a tournament favourite in their group, the defeated Greeks now have two chances against Japan and Ivory Coast to win and progress. Such an optimistic outlook looks unlikely on the evidence of their overly cautious showing in the first game.

Given how Greece have relished playing the role of underdog, they were unlikely to have been unnerved by the abundance of yellow in the 57,174-strong crowd, yet they played like they were.

It's a decade since Otto Rehhagel's side pulled off their stunning 2004 European win, but they've been top-15 regulars in FIFA's world rankings. So why did they play with so much caution against a team they could have beaten? Why did 38-year-old central defender and Colombia captain Mario Yepes enjoy such a comfortable afternoon?

Greece are proud of their style, their team spirit and resilience, and it's a success for any country of 10 million to reach the finals, but they left Kostas Mitroglou -- their playoff hero and the most expensive Greek player of all time since his 12 million-pound transfer from Olympiakos to Fulham -- on the bench until the 64th minute. Coach Fernando Santos said Mitroglou was working towards more fitness, but yet to find his rhythm. They need him at his best, for Greece need a spark to come from somewhere. By the time Rodriguez had scored Colombia's injury-time third, Greece looked fatigued, and several of their players didn't even hang around to applaud the fans who'd travelled across the Atlantic.