Colombia and The Netherlands have passed their biggest tests so far.

The second round has started with a bang and promises to be every bit as thrilling as the group stages. The passion on display in the game between Brazil and Chile was incredible to watch and the tension was palpable as a superb match sprinted towards a penalty shoot out. Usually when a crucial game heads towards the back end of extra time, the two teams become so afraid of losing that the match limps to a standstill with a penalty shootout becoming an inevitable outcome. Brazil and Chile seemed so desperate to avoid a shootout that they ended up trading blows right until the end. Mauricio Pinilla came closest to winning it for Chile as his shot in the last minute of extra time cannoned off the crossbar. The Chileans were left devastated after Julio Cesar’s heroics in the shootout but they have won many admirers for their endeavour in this tournament.

Colombia were a revelation in the group stages with their dazzling brand of football. James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez have brilliantly stepped up to the plate following the injury to Radamel Falcao. Rodriguez’s two goals against Uruguay have pushed him ahead of Muller, Messi and Neymar as the tournament’s top scorer. Muller and Messi of course have a game in hand but with two assists to his name, Rodriguez is well placed in the race for the golden boot. His first against the Uruguayans was a moment of breathtaking individual quality to rival Robin Van Persie and Tim Cahill’s efforts in the group stages. The second goal was the culmination of move that showed a team working together in beautiful harmony. Juan Cuadrado’s unselfish and athletic header to set up Rodriguez was one of the most sublime assists of the tournament so far. Cuadrado also leads the chart for most assists with four. This Colombian chorus is clearly singing in unison.

On paper, even a Suarez- light Uruguay was Colombia’s toughest assignment in these first four games. The fact that they won so convincingly is a reflection on their quality rather than the impact of the loss of Suarez.

At just 22 years of age- he turns 23 on the eve of the world cup final- James Rodriguez has already had quite a journey in the world of professional football. He spent three seasons at Porto before a £38.5 million transfer to big spending Monaco in 2013 to partner Falcao for both club and country. He has epitomised the style of this young Colombian team and will surely be attracting interest from the giants of European football come the conclusion of this world cup. For all their financial backing, Monaco are not a big player on the European stage and their two Colombian superstars will be courted at every turn. Falcao has already intimated that he would like to leave.

Not since Rivaldo and Ronaldo in 2002 has a player scored in each of the first four games of a tournament. That gives you an indication of what Rodriguez has achieved already. This is also the first time that Colombia have reached the quarter finals. They are up against hosts Brazil however, the highest compliment you can pay to Jose Pekerman’s team is that you would not be at all surprised if they were to triumph on Friday night.

Shortly after their demolition job of world champions Spain in the first round of group matches, I wrote in this blog that I had seen signs that even though they had won convincingly the Netherlands had no chance of winning this tournament. Their second round tie with Mexico looked to be the moment when the cracks in the squad would begin to show. The heat in Fortaleza at an early afternoon kick off local time prompted the first use of the ‘cooling break’ in this tournament wherein the referee can use a stoppage roughly half an hour into each period to allow the players to take on water. Although the cynic in me believed that this would just end up being another opportunity for advertisers to flourish, this actually appears to be a rare moment of sense from FIFA. It was clear that the players were struggling in the conditions and the water would have been an undoubted help.

In the heat, one would have expected that the Mexicans, naturally more acclimatised to such temperatures would have flourished. With Mexico 1-0 up, time running out and Guillermo Ochoa once again performing heroics it looked for all the world as though the Dutch would crack and that the old fissures in the squad would resurface. What transpired was that the Netherlands kept their cool and rallied superby. Louis Van Gaal praised the use of the drinks break after the match but credit should also go to his players who performed admirably and won the game through a late Wesley Sneijder equaliser and a controversial Klaus Jan Huntelaar penalty in stoppage time.

I am still convinced however, that the Dutch will not triumph in this world cup. For all of their attacking strength- they are the top scorers so far with 12 goals- they are far too reliant on Arjen Robben to provide quality and they look increasingly vulnerable at the back. A more clinical team than Mexico would have taken advantage of their winning position.

However, they have not allowed their collective temperament to let them down as has so often been the case in the past. Mexico and the searing heat should have been the moment where my earlier prediction came to pass. The Dutch deserve tremendous credit for enduring the most testing of conditions. How far they go in the tournament remains to be seen however, they and Colombia have provided us all with tremendous entertainment so far.

 

A Colombia victory to cement their achievements?

With all the furore over Luis Suarez and the attention that inevitably circulates around Lionel Messi and Neymar, it is all to easy to overlook the achievements of the South and Central American sides in this tournament. Of the ten nations from the two American federations that qualified for these finals, eight have made it through to the last sixteen. Only Honduras and Ecuador have fallen at the first hurdle. Whilst we would all have expected Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to qualify, the feats of Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Colombia and Chile have provided us with some of the highlights of this already spectacular world cup.

When the draw was made it appeared that lady luck had deserted the USA. Drawn in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, they were seen as the whipping boys in the one genuine group of death. However, they took advantage of being drawn to play Ghana (on paper their easiest game) in their first match and stunned the African side with an aggressive brand of football that yielded an early three points that proved so vital in a tight group. Their performance against Portugal merited a victory and it was fitting in the end that they qualified at the expense of Cristiano Ronaldo and his team. The USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann has achieved a minor miracle in whipping up public support for ‘soccer.’ The game against Portugal was the most viewed televised match in the country’s history with an estimated audience of 24.7 million. The squad is united under Klinsmann’s passionate approach to management and a second round tie with Belgium is not an insurmountable task.

Chile’s performance in group B was viewed as a surprise by some. However, given the events of the last year it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Their performance last November in beating England 2-0 at Wembley in distinctly un-South American conditions was highly impressive and marked them down as potential dark horses. They were equally adept in disposing of world champions Spain in their second group match in one of the most committed team displays of the tournament so far. Their squad is young and the players are able to pound every blade of grass relentlessly. Spain and Australia simply could not cope with the energy of the Chilean players. However, a defeat to an under strength Dutch side in the final group game shows that genuinely quality sides can get themselves one step ahead. Brazil in the second round may be too much for Chile.

With a population of just under 4 million, Costa Rica were by far the smallest and lowest ranked nation in Group B. However, they belied their lowly status by catching Uruguay cold in the first match. They followed that up in the second match by completely outhinking the Italians in one of the great tactical displays of the group stages. This was no plucky, lucky underdog story Instead the Ticos were superior to Italy in every area of the pitch. A nil-nil draw with England secured top spot in the group and provided us with one of the great world cup stories of recent times. Can you remember the last time that the fourth seeded team won their group? A last sixteen tie with Greece provides Costa Rica with a great chance of making the quarter finals.

Mexico have been a joy to watch from the word go. in the first match against Cameroon they were denied two first half goals in controversial circumstances yet they maintained their discipline and eventually earned a 1-0 victory. Against Brazil, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa produced one of the finest displays by a stopper in a world cup finals match. One particular save from a Neymar header drew comparisons with Gordon Banks’ block to deny Pele in 1970 and is undoubtedly the save of the tournament so far. Mexico were far too good for Croatia in the winner takes all final group match and the joy of manager Miguel Herrera as his team scored three second half goals was one of the most priceless images of the tournament. Mexico have been solid in all three of their games, Ivan Perisic’s late consolation goal for Croatia was the only goal Ochoa conceded in the group stages. They have the joint best defensive record in the tournament with Costa Rica thought they will be severely tested by the firepower of the Netherlands in the second round.

Finally, Colombia have been the most impressive of the American outfits so far. Shorn of their best player Radamel Falcao on the eve of the tournament, they have still managed to blow aside all three of their Group C opponents. James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez have struck up an impressive partnership up front that has seen the pair score five of their team’s nine goals between them. Rodriguez’s goal against Japan in Colombia’s final match was one of the goals of the tournament so far however, the 4-1 victory will be remembered for the wonderful moment when 43 year old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was brought on as a substitute and subsequently broke Roger Milla’s record as the oldest player to appear in a world cup match. It was a gesture that epitomised the spirit of the Colombian team at this moment in time. They play Uruguay in the second round. The Uruguayans will be without Luis Suarez who has rightly been hit with a four month worldwide ban for his bite on Giorgio Chiellini. The reaction of the Uruguayan camp in the aftermath of Suarez’s latest indiscretion has been unsavoury at best. The circus surrounding Suarez has unfairly distracted from the achievements of all the South American sides, including Brazil and Argentina. To a man they have shown a commitment to entertaining and virtuoso football (Uruguay excepted) and they have each embodied the spirit of this sensational competition.

It would therefore, be a fitting and poetic moment if Colombia were to dispatch Uruguay in the second round not just for the American teams but for the tournament itself.

Group C Preview, Columbia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan

Group C comprising of Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan is a very geographically diverse group, representing 4 totally different regions. Despite the presence of several talented players, the group lacks World Cup pedigree: None of the teams has made a quarter-final till date. Each team has at least one major weakness, some of which cancel each other out – which means all six fixtures are likely to be good fun.

Group C Schedule
S.No. Date Time Teams City Stadium
1 14/6 17:00 Colombia vs Greece Belo Horizonte Estadio Mineirao
2 15/6 02:00 Ivory Coast vs Japan Recife Arena Pernambuco
3 19/6 17:00 Colombia v Ivory Coast Brasilia Estadio Nacional
4 20/6 23:00 Japan v Greece Natal Arena das Dunas
5 25/6 21:00 Japan v Colombia Cuiaba Arena Pantanal
6 25/6 21:00 Greece v Ivory Coast Fortaleza Estadio Castelao

Locations

Cuiaba, Recife, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Natal

Temperature could be a major factor in Brazil. At the Confederations Cup last year, the intense summer heat was a huge problem for teams from outside South America, with 8 Italian players requesting a half-time substitution against Brazil. That naturally hands Colombia an added weapon. In addition to being the strongest team in Group C, they have already used the weather to their advantage in qualifying, scheduling all their home matches at mid-afternoon in hot Barranquilla.

As you can see, three of the venues (Fortaleza, Recife or Natal) are coastal cities, usually warmer and more humid than cities away from the coast. Curiously, all three of Colombia’s venues are in the hinterland (Cuiaba, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte), where the peak daily temperatures are significantly lowerIt’s risky to rely excessively on these things, but the cooler weather might level the playing field for their opponents.

 Brasilia’s Mane Garrincha National Stadium is the most expensive of the lot, and can seat upto 73,000

Team Guide

Colombia

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Colombia have risen from the ‘dark horse’ tag to become one of the main contenders to at least progress to the next round. Boasting a Fifa ranking of fourth at the start of 2014 and carrying one of the most expensive European footballers in James Rodriguez, they are in the competition to prove a point, as they will be making their first appearance in the World Cup after 16 years.

Their qualification at this year’s World Cup was no less than a roller-coaster ride. They won nine of their 16 matches to earn the second spot in South America, which included a 4-0 win against Uruguay, who had come into the game on the back of a two-year unbeaten run. But they had to wait till the last game to confirm qualification due to a few underwhelming performances.

Their coach, Jose Pekerman, brings with him a variety of different formations, but to varying degrees of success, which makes it very unclear as to how they will line up at the World Cup.

Key Player – James Rodríguez

FIFA Ranking : 8

For more information, read Columbia Team Preview.

Japan

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Japan didn’t even have a professional domestic league till 1993; now they’re taking part in their 5th consecutive World Cup, having hosted the 2002 edition. It’s been a meteoric rise fuelled by money, foreign know-how and work ethic. While a technically brilliant side, Japan are yet to figure out the knockout stages.

Japan became the first team to come through qualifications for the 2014 World Cup with a hope to make it further than their previous best of second round. With 10 points from six games, Japan finished second in the third round of the Asian qualification with Uzbekistan on top. In the final group round of the qualifiers, Japan cruised to the top spot, five points adrift of Australia to book a fifth straight World Cup berth.

Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni has guided the nation to the 2011 Asian Cup glory which helped them secure a place in the 2013 Confederations Cup where Japan were thrashed badly by Brazil, Italy and Mexico.However, they seem to have found good form as a draw against the Netherlands and a victory over Belgium in late 2013 helped them prove their mettle.

Key Player – Keisuke Honda

FIFA Ranking : 46

For more information, read Japan Team Preview.

Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast World Cup team

As the highest-ranked African nation, Ivory Coast will arrive for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with some unfinished business. They suffered first-round defeats to Argentina and Netherlands in their opening matches in the 2006 World Cup, their debut appearance, while 2010 again saw them earning defeat when they drew against a Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal, while suffering a 3-1 defeat against Brazil. This time around, the chances of making it to the second round are higher for the African giants.

They will pin their hopes on Didier Drogba, former Chelsea superstar and the captain for this year’s World Cup, while Manchester City’s in-form Yaya Toure will also be ready to achieve victories for his country.

One of only two nations to finish unbeaten in African qualifying (the other being Nigeria). They overcame Senegal 5-3 on aggregate in the play-offs. Lille man Salomon Kalou was top scorer with 5 goals.

Key Player – Yaya Toure

FIFA Ranking : 23

For more information, read Ivory Coast Preview.

Greece

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Greece will enter the 2014 World Cup with a lot of confidence, even though they had to go through the playoffs to qualify. Greece have a very good record of making it to the major tournaments after their surprise win at the European Championship a decade ago in 2004. They made it to the World Cup thrice out of the last four tournaments but only to add to their disappointment by being knocked out in the group stages on all three occasions.

Coach Fernando Santos likes to adopt a defensive approach, but a quarter-final appearance in the Euro 2012 means his strategy has had a considerable amount of success. Under his command, Greece will try to carry their pre-World Cup confidence to render a bold approach towards the tournament itself.

Greece’s star players Giorgos Karagounis (captain) and Kostas Kastsounaras, who holds the record for most caps, are again expected to deliver for the nation after appearing in all the qualifiers.

The Greeks are classic underdogs – lacking any real stars, but with fantastic team spirit. They will need it in spades if they are to get a whiff of the knockouts in Brazil.

Key Player – Kostas Mitroglou

FIFA Ranking : 12

For more information, read Greece Team Preview.

Key Fixture

Colombia vs Ivory Coast on 19th June. These two are the strongest sides on paper, and the difference in style – a typically Latin American, free-flowing side against a physically strong African side – should make this an interesting contest..

Observations

Even without Radamel Falcao, Colombia have the sheer quality to force their way into the knockouts. But their defence lacks pace or ability, and this could be exploited by the likes of Drogba and Yaya Toure.

Ivory Coast’s main problem is age – at 29, Kalou is the youngest survivor from the golden generation. Yaya Toure has had a great season with City, but a knee injury could keep him out of their opening fixtures, and that could prove vital if Drogba – in the twilight of his career – fails to deliver.

Greece are the worst side technically and creatively, while Japan are perhaps the best on both counts. If results were determined by visual appeal alone, both would hold very different FIFA rankings! Japan lost thrice at last summer’s Confederations Cup and lack a good striker, which could be their undoing against packed defences like Greece. While Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda flourished as central attackers, both have struggled out wide since joining Manchester United and AC Milan respectively. This tournament provides a good chance for them to remind the world of their abilities.

Predictions

Groups of Death are passe. Group C could be the first ever Group of Underdogs: 4 teams with a lot to prove, but none good enough to last the distance. The relative lack of World Cup experience makes predictions difficult, though. Nevertheless, here’s my attempt. If you disagree with the order suggested – you can see the comments section below, and you know what to do.

Predicted Leaderboard
Team   Points
Colombia 7
Ivory Coast 4
Greece 3
Japan 2

 

Columbia Team Preview

The Players

David Ospina, goalkeeper Nice

Cristián Zapata, defender Milan

Mario Yepes, defender Atalanta

Santiago Arias, defender PSV Eindhoven

5 Aldo Leão Ramírez, midfielder Morelia

6 Carlos Sánchez Moreno, midfielder Elche

Pablo Armero, defender West Ham United

Abel Aguilar, midfielder Toulouse

9 Teófilo Gutiérrez, forward River Plate

10 James Rodríguez, midfielder Monaco

11 Juan Cuadrado, midfielder Fiorentina

12 Camilo Vargas, goalkeeper Santa Fe

13 Fredy Guarín, midfielder Internazionale

14 Víctor Ibarbo, forward Cagliari

15 Alexander Mejía, midfielder Atlético Nacional

16 Éder Balanta, defender River Plate

17 Carlos Bacca, forward Sevilla

18 Juan Zúñiga, defender Napoli

19 Adrián Ramos, forward Hertha Berlin

20 Juan Quintero, midfielder Porto

21 Jackson Martínez, forward Porto

22 Faryd Mondragón, goalkeeper Deportivo Cali

23 Carlos Valdés, defender San Lorenzo

Star man

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James Rodríguez, 22, has long been hailed as “El Nuevo Pibe” [the New Kid]. A two-footed playmaker who can play across the midfield, he won eight trophies in three years at Porto before £37m took him to Monaco last summer.

Most likely to be sent home in disgrace
Cristian Zapata. Given his first chance under new coach Pekerman, Zapata marked the occasion by brawling with Gonzalo Higuain and getting sent off.

The coach

José Pékerman’s soft-spoken, professorial style, limited media interaction, posse of advisers and advanced years at 64 made his appointment unpopular. But guiding Columbia to the World Cup for the first time in 16 years has seen him twice named South America’s top coach by Uruguayan paper El País. He has experience aplenty at this level. He led Argentina to the quarter-finals in Germany in 2006 where they lost to the hosts on penalties, and gave Lionel Messi his international debut in 2005. Although the Argentinian ended his playing career at Medellín’s Atlético Nacional and has now been granted citizenship.

Grudge match

Though there’s always a bit of niggle when the neighbours are in town, Argentina have long been the team Colombians love to beat. A 5-0 victory in Buenos Aires in 1993 is still fondly recalled two decades on, while with their Argentinian coach, Colombia came close to topping the qualification group ahead of Lionel Messi’s men.

Holed up

São Paulo’s secluded training complex in Cotia, 45km from the state capital, has two swimming pools, two lakes and 11 training pitches. Los Cafeteros (“Coffee men”) have asked for 15 young players to be made available to help them prepare for other teams’ whippersnappers at the tournament.

How they qualified
Second behind Argentina, clinching their spot by coming back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 against Chile.

World Cup high
Even their best effort, the last 16 in 1990, ended in calamity when Roger Milla robbed Rene Higuita and scored into an empty net.

World Cup low
Hard to imagine a bigger disaster than USA ’94, where they started as one of the favourites and ended up eliminated in the first round, with their captain shot dead.

Familiar faces
No one.

Title odds: 25/1

The stereotype is …
Unbelievably gifted, slightly unhinged players who can rip you apart if they haven’t been paid off by a drug kingpin first.

The reality is …
Unbelievably gifted, slightly unhinged players who can rip you apart going forward but occasionally look a bit doddery at the back. Powerful, flexible and technically adept, after experimenting with 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1, Colombia settled on 4-2-2-2 as the best way of unleashing key players’ potential.

What are they known for?
Coffee beans 42 per cent
Their other main export crop 25 per cent
Shakira 22 per cent
Higuita’s scorpion kick 11 per cent

How Google translates the national anthem
“The virgin her hairs starts in agony, widow and his love cypress hangs. Regretting her hope covering cold headstone but glorious pride her fair complexion.”

Duration
Eleven verses with choruses. No word on whether Don McLean was involved.

How to dress like their fans

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Big tall hats in the country’s yellow, blue and red colours. Carlos Valderrama wigs also go down well.

Commentator’s go-to stat
Because of its position on the equator, Colombia does not have seasons. But then what do they call their transfer windows?