Colombia coasted past Japan and to a 100% record in their group thanks to some dangerous counter-attacking and clinical finishing. Huw Davies watched events unfold with the FourFourTwo and Opta live data app Stats Zone...
Group C shuffled to a close with Colombia, already in the last 16, facing Japan. Both sides had every reason to attack: the Asian islanders needed to win and also for Ivory Coast to drop points against Greece, while Colombia were keen to top the group (and just love to attack anyway).
Nonetheless, Tricolor manager Jose Pekerman made eight changes for the game with only left-back Pablo Armero, the highly impressive Juan Cuadrado and goalkeeper David Ospina surviving the cull. Their replacements brought with them a real goal threat, though, strikers Adrian Ramos of Hertha Berlin and Jackson Martinez of Porto having scored 36 league goals between them in the European 2013/14 season.
Blue Samurai boss Alberto Zaccheroni brought Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa back into the starting XI, at the expense of Yuya Osako. Toshihiro Aoyama replaced Hotaru Yamaguchi in midfield.
The first 15 minutes was mostly as you'd expect: Japan on the ball, Colombia counter-attacking at speed. It wasn't all pointless Japanese possession, either: they created 4 early chances and cracked off 5 shots, albeit mostly from long distance, before Colombia had any.
Then disaster struck for the Japanese - or rather, Yasuyuki Konno did. Adrian Ramos was running away from goal when the centre-back brought him down, leading to a penalty and gut-wrenching 1-0 lead for Colombia, Cuadrado converting the spot-kick.
Colombia were delighted - they'd been given some breathing room without needing to force the issue - but Japan responded well, continuing to create chances. Colombia, meanwhile, continued to make fouls: 9 to Japan's 2 (1 being for the penalty).
Japan equalised right on half-time. Okazaki worked some space to find the net with a header, the ball crossing the line with 46:00 on the clock after the designated one minute of stoppage time had been played. It was a reward for Japan's persistence and also their continued commitment to crossing.
It would be an exaggeration to say the equaliser had been coming, but Japan had certainly been creating opportunities. At the halfway stage they'd had considerably more shots than Colombia, albeit many of them blocked...
...and also dominated possession, enjoying 64% of the ball and completing twice as many passes as their counter-attacking opponents.
For Colombia, Juan Cuadrado was showing his ability as an attacking force, impressing in the final third, but also topped the charts for interceptions. Meanwhile, Japan's Toshihiro Aoyama, brought into the team, was missing too many tackles in midfield.
At half-time Pekerman made two substitutions, Cuadrado and Juan Quintero coming off for James Rodriguez and Carlos Carbonero. Rodriguez made an immediate impact, creating chaos in the Japanese defence and winning Colombia's first corner of the game. There were no surprises when he played a key part in the team move for the South Americans to take the lead once more: Rodriguez received the ball, fooled two defenders into thinking he would shoot and then found Jackson Martinez on the overlap.
Once again, Japan didn't allow their heads to go down. They created chances, including an excellent opportunity squandered by Yoshito Okubo, while Colombia were content to let them pass around the box. Kagawa and Keisuke Honda were the main men tasked with finding that slide rule pass, but while the ball was pinged around with impressive speed and control, few opportunities were presenting themselves with the spaces becoming increasingly tight.
Colombia, on the other hand, were looking dangerous with every counter-attack. They had a couple of opportunities even before Martinez made it 3-1 thanks to a second assist from Rodriguez.
Then, with the last few minutes of Japan's World Cup ticking away, Rodriguez added a deserved goal to his 2 assists - again on the counter-attack. It was a classy finish, the Monaco man sending a defender the wrong way before chipping the ball casually over Eiji Kawashima.
There was even time for Faryd Mondragon, aged 43 and now the World Cup's oldest ever player, to come on for his first competitive appearance in nine years - and make a very decent save in the final few seconds.
At full-time the 4-1 scoreline seemed harsh on Japan, but it did reflect their opponents' ruthlessness in attack. Few of Japan's 24 shots really tested Ospina, while Colombia's forwards found the corners of the goal, or in Rodriguez's case, the space above Kawashima's head. As a result, they scored 4 goals from 4 shots on target.
The Tricolor showed how lethal a good counter-attacking game can be in hot Brazilian conditions (it was toasty in Cuiaba for this encounter). They had only 39% possession because that's all they needed; Japan, meanwhile, completed nearly twice as many passes in the final third and recorded every one of the game's top 15 pass combinations. Their approach shouldn't be dismissed, and in fact they put together some extremely impressive passing moves, but time and again they lacked a cutting edge in front of goal.
Colombia are showing they know how to win games, which makes them a very dangerous opponent for any side. Their street smarts were evident in their willingness to break up play with fouls in the middle of the park - something we may see a lot of in their last 16 match, with Uruguay content to do the same.
Facts and figures
- Colombia’s substitute goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon became the oldest ever player to feature in a World Cup match, at 43 years and three days.
- Japan had 5 shots before Colombia scored with their first shot of the game.
- Japan scored with their 14th shot of the game. They ended up with 24 shots overall.
- Meanwhile Colombia scored with all 4 of their shots on target in the match.
- It was the first time Japan had scored against Colombia in 3 games against them.
- Jackson Martinez scored with his first shot at the World Cup.
- James Rodriguez has scored in each of his last 5 appearances for Colombia.
- Rodriguez’s goal was the 24th by a substitute at this tournament, breaking the previous record of 23 set at the 2006 World Cup.
- Before 2014, Colombia had only ever won a total of 3 games in 4 previous World Cup appearances (13 games) but have won all 3 this time round.
- 11 of the last 13 goals conceded by Japan at the World Cup have arrived after half-time.
- Only Netherlands (10) have scored more goals at the 2014 World Cup than Colombia (9).