JAPAN 1-4 COLOMBIA
TUESDAY 24TH JUNE – CUIABA
Two distinct styles, only one winner. Colombia progressed to the last sixteen thanks in large part to James Rodriguez’ mesmerising second half cameo which included two assists and a tremendous solo effort in the final minute of the match.
Having made nine changes from their last win over Ivory Coast, Colombia found themselves without the ball for large swathes of the contest but counter attacked with a ruthless purpose which ultimately rendered Japans possession meaningless.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s men emerged from the debris of their opening two matches which had yielded only a solitary point with a quiet determination. They controlled the opening exchanges, carving half chances for Okubo and Kagawa.
However the good work was undone when Martinez released Ramos on the left hand side of the box in Colombia’s first meaningful attack. Konno, having reacted well to get goal side and cover, was inexplicably tempted to the flame and his rash intervention allowed Cuadrado to smash the subsequent penalty beyond Kawashima.
Japan regrouped and controlled proceedings for the rest of the half, Honda grazing the post with a free kick and the industrious Okubo sending a spectacular scissor kick wide. In a dramatic conclusion to the opening period, in the last second of injury time, Shinji Okazaki contorted his body and twisted his neck muscles to brilliantly head Keisuke Hondas inswinging cross beyond Ospina to restore parity at the interval.
The half time introduction of Rodriguez changed everything. This magnificent young footballer is already the star of the tournament and reinforced his credentials as a world class talent with a beautiful sidestep and well weighted pass in the 55th minute to Jackson Martinez who converted low across the face of goal for 2-1.
The match fell back into its familiar pattern. Japan probed, side to side and around the box; neat, precise and impotent in equal measure, enshrining their status as an aesthetically pleasing team who operate on the periphery of the global game.
Okubo came closest to levelling when he volleyed over from six yards after excellent interplay on the wing between Uchida and Honda but every Colombian breakaway carried an air of menace that Zaccheroni simply does not possess within his personnel.
Minus many of their top players, Colombia played with pace, enthusiasm and endeavour, carving Japans porous backline open with appalling simplicity. With just under ten minutes remaining Rodriguez released Martinez again with a glorious reverse pass and the Porto striker checked inside Uchida before curling a sublime finish into the far corner if the net.
Honda, Hasebe and Kagawa continued to push forward – indeed the latter should have scored when his captain sent him clear inside the box – but it was fitting that the defining image of the encounter arrived via Rodriguez. Collecting the ball in the inside left position he feinted and swivelled, twisting the blood of Maya Yoshida and leaving him grounded, before clipping a delightful effort over Kawashima and into the net.
In between times Colombia defender Balanta attempted to claim Okazaki’s teeth as a souvenier with a nasty forum smash for which he miraculously escaped censure, while 43 year old goalkeeper Mondragon became the World Cups oldest player, entering the fray as a sub with seven minutes remaining.
Japan were much improved from their last outing against Greece but have perished in the group stages due to the obvious lack of a plan B. Yes, they have a clear footballing identity, an admirable style and the players talk of playing our game but as the group progressed Zaccheroni has seemed increasingly divorced from the reality of what is needed to challenge the elite footballing order. They arrived in Brazil on a wave of optimism but have had a dismal tournament. Their sub standard defending, exemplified by Konno and to a lesser extent Uchida in this match, is a source of exasperation to fans of the Samurai Blue and a serious impediment to meaningful progress.
As for Colombia, with nine points from nine they have set this competition alight with their power and skill not to mention their synchronised dance routines.
Every successful team needs a talisman, the one who turns a draw into a win and who has the guile to create something from nothing. In a World Cup bursting with attacking talent Colombia have a star who may eclipse all others this summer.
James Rodriguez destroyed Japan in 45 minutes tonight and you get the feeling he is just warming up.
JAPAN: Kawashima, Uchida, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo, Aoyama (Yamaguchi 62), Hasebe, Kagawa (Kiyotake 85), Honda, Okazaki (Kakitani 69), Okubo.
GOALS: Okazaki 45+1.
BOOKINGS: Konno 16.
COLOMBIA: Ospina (Mondragon 85), Arias, Balanta, Valdes, Armero, Cuadrado (Carbonero 46), Guarin, Mejia, Quintero (Rodriguez 46), Martinez, Ramos.
GOALS: Cuadrado 17P, Martinez 55 & 82, Rodriguez 89.
BOOKINGS: Guarin 63.
Click on Chris’s name to follow him on Twitter