Colombia rolled Japan 4-1 Tuesday in the final game of group play, sealing first place in Group C and setting the stage for a classic South American elimination round matchup against Uruguay next Saturday.
The onslaught capped an undefeated first round for Colombia, playing in its first World Cup since France 1998 and progressing to its first elimination round since Italy 1990.
With a advancement already locked up for “Los Cafeteros,” head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman was expected to shuffle his lineup, presumably to give some of his starters rest and introduce his reserves to the pace of World Cup play. Colombia has one of the deeper teams in the tournament, and, in a largely meaningless game, thinking ahead to the next round made good sense from a tactical standpoint.
Whether there was any grand strategy behind it or whether Pekerman simply decided to pimp walk into the second round is hard to say, given the sheer extent of the changes and the likelihood that the B Team represented a significant step up in at least two key positions.
Gone were “Not Very” Abel Aguilar in the holding midfield and Teo “Why Me?” Gutierrez up top, giving way for the much faster Fredy Guarin and much less afraid of goal Adrian Ramos. The recently recuperated Camilo Zuñiga got some time off from wing duty, and with two substitute appearances in two games, 22-year-old fullback Santiago Arias was a more than adequate replacement on the right side of the defense.
Alexander Mejia brought at least as much bloodlust to the space in front of the Colombian backline as does Carlos Sanchez, out with a yellow card, and while they were not able to replicate the rock-solid chemistry Mario Alberto Yepes and Cristian Zapata have brought to the center of the defense so far in this tournament, Eder Balanta and Edwin Valencia did manage to hold their own against a convincing Japanese attack.
The only early disappointment was the Straight Outta Porto pairing of Juan Fernando Quintero, burdened with the unenviable task of filling in for James Rodriguez in the playmaking role, and Jackson Martinez, who, try as he might, has yet give Pekerman a reason to do away with the thoroughly mediocre Gutierrez at striker. Quintero gave up possession too easy in the first half, and Martinez sent his one clear chance in front of goal wide.
The piecemeal Colombian squad came out with a purpose early on, but the magic wore off quickly enough, and Japan, still playing for a birth to the second round, settled into its most aggressive offensive look of the group stages.
It was after one such 10-minute siege of the Colombian box that “Los Cafeteros” first escaped on the counter, with Adrian Ramos running onto a through boll into the box, where the soon-to-be Borrussia Dortmund man was brought down on a questionable slide tackle from behind. Juan Guillermo Cuadrado converted the ensuing penalty, and, deserved or not, Colombia went up 1-0.
The goal did not break the Japanese rhythm, though, and the rest of the half was played, for the most part, in Colombia’s defensive third. The Colombians managed to pull things together a bit toward the end, but just when they found a bit of attacking momentum, the Japanese finally capitalized on one of their opportunities, with Shinji Ozakazi finishing a deadly driven cross from Keisuke Honda on the right in the final minute before halftime.
The second 45 minutes was a completely different story.
Pekerman brought the Quintero experiment to a perhaps premature end, sending in James to do what he’s been doing all tournament, i.e. everything, as far as the Colombian offense is concerned. The change was immediate.
Colombia found instant confidence on the ball, and a beautiful peace of combination play on the right found James in the middle with a clear angle at goal. James opened his hips to the far post with his first touch, drawing in the Japanese defense before laying the ball off to his former club teammate, Jackson Martinez, who proved –thank God — that Teofilo Gutierrez is not the only striker on the roster who can produce with James Rodriguez feeding him goals.
Before the end of the game, Jackson would prove his worth again. “Cha Cha Cha” had been working back most of the game, playing more in an attacking midfield position than in that of an out-and-out striker. But with James back in the picture, Jackson felt more liberty to push up on the break, and found space in the 83′ on a surging cross-field diagonal run. James played Jackson through across his body, as he had 100 times previously during their days together at Porto. And Jackson, encouraged by his first goal or by the much-awaited start, finished with the class we’ve come to expect from the big man in club play and have been waiting to seen thus far for Colombia.
Jackson faked a shot with his right, sending the defender sliding, and cut back on his left, curling a wickedly artful bender into the far post side netting.
With the game safely in hand, and the pressure of elimination play looming, Faryd Mondragon came on for the excellent David Ospina at goal, becoming — at 43 years of age — the oldest player in World Cup history. It was a fitting end to group play for Colombia, an explosive young time with 16 years spent on the outside of the tournament, and more fitting still, when the surprisingly young, irrationally mature James Rodriguez chipped the game into history in the 90′.