Four teams from four different continents; none have been further than the last 16 in their World Cup history – Group C is there for the taking.
“I think that it’s one of the most evenly matched groups at this World Cup,” agrees Jackson Martinez, Colombia striker and top scorer in the Portuguese Liga for the past two seasons with Porto.
Martinez continues his assessment: “Ivory Coast have very experienced players with a lot of quality, Japan are always at the World Cup and cover every blade of grass, and Greece are tactically very strong.”
We will dip into the relevant data on his country’s opponents in Brazil to test the accuracy of Martinez’s expectations, but first, what will we see from Colombia themselves?
Colombia certainly appear to be one of the best, and most well-rounded teams from the South American qualifying group. Finishing 2nd behind Argentina, they conceded less than any other team while proving their goalscoring prowess with 4-0 and 5-0 routs against Uruguay and Bolivia respectively.
Contrary to the common perception of South American teams as care-free attacking entities, Colombia look to be a fairly safe bet at the back. A 62% share of their defensive actions are performed in low risk areas – the highest percentage of any team in the group, showing an ability to keep the ball away from the danger zone. Of all Group C’s centre-backs playing in at least ten games over the course of the qualifying campaign, Colombia’s Carlos Valdes has the highest percentage of good actions in and around the danger zone – 38% – from defensive situations classed as ‘medium risk’.
Next Greece. Like all their Group C rivals, Greece have enjoyed continental glory in the past, springing a surprise at Euro 2004 in Portugal. Now, as then, they are known as a tactically astute and defensively solid unit. Greece conceded only 4 goals in qualifying, the lowest in their group, and the fact they only scored 12 goals points to an invaluable ability to close out games.
Greece carry the distiction of being the only team in Group C to average over 30 defensive actions per game in the 75 – 90 minute period. This, coupled with their low goal leakage, demonstrates their capability of being able to withstand and deal effectively with attacking pressure in the pivotal stage of matches. Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos is the defensive lynchpin who could be key to success in this respect.
Now to Les Éléphants, the Ivory Coast, who have long been considered one of the most feasible African nations to win the continent’s 1st World Cup. Star names leap out from their squad list in every department, from Premier League stalwart Kolo Toure in defence to Chelsea legend Didier Drogba in attack, but it is perhaps the midfield engine room which has the potential to be their biggest asset. In Yaya Toure (Manchester City) and Cheick Tiote (Newcastle United), the Ivory Coast boast two genuine box-to-box players capable of driving the game.
Some 67% of Tiote’s defensive actions when faced with high risk situations are in the ‘good’ category, the highest of any Ivory Coast player. He also makes the 2nd highest number of passes per game – 51.8 – bettered only by Romaric. Yaya Toure is able to combine his defensive duties with attack – he is the most shot-happy of any Ivory Coast midfielder, going for goal 18 times during qualifying, while his ‘good pass’ percentage when Ivory Coast attack is the highest in the squad – 31%.
Japan have been indoctrinated with an industrious passing game since Dutchman Hans Ooft’s seminal reign as coach from 1992-1993. They will be hard to out-hustle, working hard to keep the ball and even harder to retrieve it.
With Colombia, they are the only Group C team to enjoy more possession than their opponents in every time period of a match and are particularly effective at keeping the ball when leading; their 57% possession in this scenario is the highest of the four teams. With 141 caps to his name, Gamba Osaka’s Yashito Endo is the most experienced and effective at this, notching up the highest number of delivered passes per game – 60.4.
So whether you favour power, possession, defensive astuteness, or all-round assets, Group C looks evenly matched. Colombia are currently the bookies’ favourites but if the other three nations play to their strengths, they also have a good chance of progressing.