Group C: It's grading time!
Forget Brazil. Forget Germany. Forget the Netherlands. The top team of the tournament for now, to me at least, has been undoubtedly Colombia. With 3 wins out of 3 in the group stage, the Colombians have proved their credentials to be regarded as THE dark horses of the World Cup.
Some might argue that Japan, Greece and the Ivory Coast might not have represented a genuine challenge. But as the old adage goes, you can only beat what is put in front of you, and the South Americans have done that in convincing fashion.
With a team seemingly made of players who could give Usain Bolt a real run for his money, Colombia have annihilated their opponents (and thrilled numerous fans alike) with their breathtaking brand of counter-attacking football. You know a team has got some serious attacking chops when they are able to score three goals against the notoriously miserly Greeks. I’m sorry, who is Radamel Falcao again?
While it is perhaps still too early to consider them as real contenders to win the competition, the potential and ability they have shown thus far should at least see them spring a few upsets along the way.
Best player – James Rodriguez
It was a toss-up between Rodriguez and wing-back Juan Cuardado, but I eventually went with the former, simply because of the massive impact he had when he came on as a substitute against Japan. The 22-year-old not only got himself two assists in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch, but also managed to find time to score a superb goal himself. Showing delightful close control, he feinted right before turning left to leave two Japanese defenders for dead, before coolly chipping the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper. Absolute class!
Special mention to Cuardado as well, whose rampaging runs down the right flank has been simply exhilarating to watch. No surprises if the Fiorentina star makes a move to a really big club this summer.
Worst player – Cristian Zapata
No matter how strong and sturdy an armor, it is bound to have its chinks. In the case of Colombia, he comes in the form of AC Milan defender Cristian Zapata. At 30 years of age and with a wealth of experience at various top teams including Villarreal and Udinese, one might rightly expect him to be a rock in the heart of defence. Instead, he has looked unsure whenever opposing players run at him, made several mistimed challenges and miscued a few clearances. His place in the starting line-up will surely be under threat in the upcoming rounds.
Nobody thought Greece could have made it to the last-16. Not especially after they were thrashed 3-0 by Colombia in their opening game, which saw them comprehensively outplayed, outfought and out-thought.
If things looked bleak for the Greeks after that, it got downright dreary for them in the 38th minute of their 2nd match against Japan. Reduced to 10-men after captain Kostas Katsouranis was sent off for two silly (and needless) fouls, the smart money then would have been on the Japanese to win the game. But against all the odds (and aided by a woeful Japanese team), Greece dug in, defended deep, and held firm to secure what ultimately proved to be an invaluable point. It was not pretty, but it was enough.
But surely they would find no joy against the mighty Ivory Coast? Having scored no goals in their first two games, could they really do the seemingly impossible and beat the Ivorians?
Turns out, they certainly could.
Yes, Greece’s winning goal came from a controversial penalty decision by the referee. Still, you cannot discredit them for managing to go head-to-head (and coming out on top) against the likes of Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba. Their journey in the tournament will probably not last much longer, although they might fancy themselves to beat upstarts Costa Rica in the last-16. Whatever it is, the Greeks should feel proud of what they have achieved, although to expect a repeat of their European Championship heroics in 2004 might just be a step to far.
Best player- Sokratis Papastathopoulos
The Borussia Dortmund player has been a rock in the heart of Greece’s defence. With his usual centre-back partner Kyriakos Papadopoulos out of the World Cup due to injury, Papastathopoulos has been forced to shoulder much of the team’s defensive burden.
It would be fair to say that he has certainly stepped up to the plate. Apart from the Greek’s opening loss to Colombia (a game in which he was not culpable for the concession of the three goals), Papastathopoulos has been generally near impossible to beat. Extremely physical and deceptively quick, the 26-year-old is also a leader who commands his defence with ferocity and gusto.
Worst player – Kostas Katsouranis
The Greek captain let his country down when they needed him most. His unnecessary dismissal in the game against Japan could have cost his team dear. As the appointed leader of the team, he really should have displayed much more sense. It also did not help his cause that Greece seemed to play much better without him on the pitch. The 35-year-old can still contribute to his team in their upcoming game(s), provided he has the mental fortitude to recover from his mistakes.
It is official. The so-called “Golden Generation” of Ivory Coast is over. Whether they ever truly sparkled in their prime is open to debate. This should be the last time we will get to see the likes of Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba and Didier Zokora in an Ivorian jersey at the World Cup.
These players certainly deserved to go out on a better note. In their prime, they were arguably some of the best in the world in their respective positions. Yet as a team, they never really managed to get going, and it certainly showed them up in this tournament.
Maybe the emotional impact from the death of Yaya and Kolo Toure’s younger brother affected the team’s overall performance. It is a convenient excuse, but one which might hold credence. Yaya and Kolo were distinctly far from their best, and their energy, or lack thereof, proved telling against the Colombians and Greeks.
It is the end of an era for Ivory Coast. This was the last chance for this select group of players to achieve World Cup glory, and they blew it big time. The Ivorians need to start rebuilding for the future, or risk falling into a dangerous downward spiral which they might never recover from.
Best player - Gervinho
He was the object of ridicule during his ill-fated time at Arsenal. A winger so unpredictable, even he did not seem to know what he would do next. But he has been completely revitalised, since his move to Roma last year. And the 27-year-old managed to translate his club form onto the international stage, as he almost single-handedly pulled his team into the knockout phase. Gervinho netted the winner for the Ivorians in their first game (vs Japan), scored a brilliant solo goal in their second (vs Colombia), and provided a pinpoint assist for Wilfried Bony to score in their third (vs Greece). Not too shabby a display at all from the former Gunners outcast.
Worst player – Serey Die
The only thing Die did of note this World Cup, was to be caught on camera crying passionately while singing his country’s national anthem. Apart from that, the 29-year-old was near anonymous in midfield, and gave away possession too cheaply whenever he had the ball. The Basel star looked woefully out of his depth, as his lack of tactical awareness constantly left his team vulnerable to counter-attacks. How he managed to secure a starting role in all three games remains a mystery.
The less said about Japan the better. With majority of their players plying their trade in the top European leagues, there was genuine optimism in the country that they would be able to spring a surprise this year. They certainly did surprise, but not in the way anyone expected.
With Australia, South Korea and Iran all having been drawn in relatively difficult groups, the whole of Asia were pinning their hopes on Japan to fly the “flag” for the continent high. Instead, the Japanese disintegrated like a badly-made sushi roll.
Insipid, careless and lacklustre, Japan just did not turn up at the World Cup. What was most alarming of all was how little fight and spirit they displayed. Each player retreated into their own shell when the chips were down, with none willing, or daring enough to take charge of the team.
Head coach Alberto Zaccheroni submitted his resignation immediately after their humbling loss to Colombia. Perhaps he simply wasn’t the right fit for Japan in the first place. Whoever takes over from him next (and I don’t envy that person) will have an uphill task trying to bring Japan back to their former glory.
Best player – Keisuke Honda
The AC Milan playmaker was one of the few (if not, only) bright sparks for the Samurai Blue. Neat in his passing and assured on the ball, the 28-year-old was a threat whenever he went forward. He also managed to score a pretty good goal against the Ivorians, which earns him some brownie points.
Worst player – Shinji Kagawa
He was once the hottest property in world football. But oh, how his star has fallen. Things have never been the same since his move to Manchester United. The 25-year-old shone sporadically under Sir Alex Ferguson in his first season. But he was completely exiled from the first team under David Moyes.
Here was his chance to prove his worth, and Moyes wrong, on the world stage. This was his audition for new Red Devils boss Louis Van Gaal.
Unfortunately, the only thing Kagawa managed to show us was that the only position he is deserving of, is that of a bench warmer (if even that).
Noah Tan is a sports radio broadcaster in Singapore who dreams of managing Arsenal one day. He pinky swears that he will spend lots of money on quality players when that day finally comes.