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Jun 23, 2014

Japan vs. Colombia: 50-50 Challenge

JapanJapan
ColombiaColombia
1
4
FT
Match 37
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Hotaru Yamaguchi and his Japanese teammates next take on Colombia, and harbor a slim hope of advancing.

Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Japan take on Colombia in Group C on Tuesday, Ken Matsushima (Japan) and Carl Worswick (Colombia) are your guides.

- Final Group Games: All the possible permutations

What's at stake?

Ken Matsushima: Japan will be treating the match far more seriously than Colombia -- who have the top spot virtually wrapped up -- though it remains to be seen whether even victory can salvage the Samurai Blue's World Cup dreams.

A lot depends on the ability of Greece to hold Ivory Coast to a draw, or perhaps even to claim victory. The odd thing, however, is that circumstances suggest this actually may be the most favourable matchup for Japan. The Samurai Blue have never been particularly adept at breaking down stacked defence, while Alberto Zaccheroni's preferred players lacked the mobility and power to hold off Ivory Coast. Colombia play a style much more similar to that of Japan. There may be little chance of progressing to the second round, but Japan might be able to salvage some pride in this contest.

Carl Worswick: Colombia are already guaranteed a spot in the round of 16, so the main focus here will be the fight to secure top place in the group. As with many of the team's achievements at this World Cup, going through as winners will be historic, and the odds are strongly in their favour.

Just a draw against Japan will be enough, so coach Jose Pekerman might use the game as an opportunity to tinker with his side. Faryd Mondragon, who turned 43 on Saturday, could feature. Interestingly, if the ex-Galatasaray goalkeeper plays, he will break Roger Milla's record as the oldest footballer to appear at a World Cup.

X factor

KM: If you define "X factor" as the most dangerous threat to the other team, the biggest throughout this tournament has been Keisuke Honda. He hasn't performed at quite the level he did in 2010, but he is the one member of the Samurai Blue squad who will not feel ashamed of his performances in the first two games.

On the other hand, if you define "X factor" as the player(s) who hold the team's fate in their hands, Yasuhito Endo and Yasuyuki Konno are the keys. If Japan wants to defeat Colombia, they need to step back and let younger players have their chances. If either of them plays a role in this match, Japan will lose.

CW: Juan Fernando Quintero isn't a guaranteed starter but following his starring role as a sub against Ivory Coast, he must surely be in with a shout. Pekerman spoke glowingly about the young Porto midfielder and how he had "never doubted" Quintero's ability to change the shape and rhythm of the game. It was a wonderfully mature performance from a 21-year-old whose audacity and talent have led many to believe he could one day be better than current star James Rodriguez.

Fear factor

KM: Colombia has already demonstrated that their country has a lot more footballing talent to offer than just Radamel Falcao. The media has been quick to embrace James Rodriguez, who took advantage of Falcao's absence to stamp his own mark on this World Cup.

However, for me the player who has contributed the most to Colombia's success in the first two matches is midfielder Juan Quintero. His setup play, intelligent distribution, and constant movement to the ball on both offense and defense have set the rhythm for the entire team. If Japan hopes to get a result, they need to close him down. That means Zaccheroni cannot afford any more mistakes in personnel selection. He needs to stick with Makoto Hasebe and Hotaru Yamaguchi in deep midfield for the full 90 minutes and hope they have enough in the gas tank to keep going.

CW: It all depends on the team Pekerman puts out, but if Mondragon gets the nod, you would have to fear for the veteran goalkeeper against Japan's attack. Understandably for a 43-year-old, Mondragon struggles to get down quickly and he could come unstuck, especially if faced with one of Endo's free kicks.

Mondragon's place on the roster strangely isn't down to football reasons, but instead for the wealth of experience he brings to a young squad. As he showed in the recent friendly against Senegal, though, he is the weak spot at the back.

Key battle

KM: Pekerman knows that he can afford to ease off in this contest and let his key players rest up for the looming clash against either Italy or Uruguay. Therefore it is a bit difficult to choose the key battle until we know which 11 players Colombia will send out to start this match.

Japan's two wing-backs have not really been "unleashed" yet, as Zac opted to use defensive players who are not very mobile. Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo have been forced to sit back and defend more than they might prefer. Both have the potential to trouble Cristian Zapata and Juan Zuniga if they are given enough free rein.

CW: Again this looks like it will be tight in midfield with Carlos Sanchez's duel with Honda probably the most interesting clash. Operating as the defensive midfield toiler, Sanchez has so far enjoyed a decent World Cup in keeping Colombia's defence tight. With Rodriguez tending to drop deep, Sanchez's biting tackles and quick releases have ensured the Monaco man has seen a lot of possession.

That's where most of Colombia's rapid-fire counterattacks have come from, but there have been times when the team has looked far from comfortable under pressure. Honda will be the most dangerous playmaker Colombia have come up against so far, so Sanchez could have his work cut out.

Prediction

KM: My prediction for this game will surprise only those who pay attention to Japan once every four years, but longtime Samurai Blue fans will understand the rationale perfectly. Japan have a very talented team -- they can create magic when all of the right pieces fall into place -- but just don't have the self-confidence and killer instinct to do so in high-stakes situations.

They perform at their best when there is no pressure at all, and as Janis Joplin put it: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." That delineates the situation for Japan, right now. Colombia have already turned their attention to the knockout rounds and may not have the emotional intensity to overcome an early goal or two conceded. My prediction rests on the assumption that Endo and Konno stay on the bench. However, if this condition is met, Japan will win by two clear goals -- either 3-1 or 4-2.

CW: Colombia 2, Japan 1. Slightly difficult to make a call on the score until we know just how many changes Pekerman plans to make, but other than Mondragon, the starting 11 shouldn't be significantly weakened with whomever comes in. I fancy Colombia's attack to be the difference.

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