Five Points: James shines again for Colombia, Uruguay in trouble with or without Suarez
Colombia expected James Rodriguez to thrive at this World Cup. He possessed all of the tools to carry his country. He just needed to rise to the occasion and show his considerable ability on the very largest stage.
Rodriguez has somehow exceeded his advance billing. He excelled yet again to ensure Colombia finished atop its group and rounded out its Group C obligations with a perfect record. This edition of Five Points starts with the Monaco man’s star turn and then wonders what it might mean for Uruguay in the round of 16.
Colombia relies on its mobility and its star man to fuel knockout round push
The essentially dead final fixture in Group C offered Colombia coach Jose Pekerman with the chance to rest several of his key figures before the round of 16 exertions at the weekend. The plans changed after an indifferent first-half display against Japan, though. Pekerman turned to Rodriguez to inspire the Colombians to a 4-1 victory over Japan to make it three wins from three attempts.
Rodriguez made a difference because he serves as the attacking hub for a fluid team in need of a fulcrum. His prodigious talents in the middle connect everything moving forward and provide an instant threat every time he touches the ball. He poses problems with both his passing (the delicious flick on Jackson Martinez’s second oozed class) and his runs into space. He is, in every sense, a dynamic modern playmaker.
Those qualities fit neatly in a team willing to play either 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 depending on the situation. Martinez functions as the integral piece as he floats around to connect things, but he benefits from space in midfield because Juan Cuadrado roves so effectively on the right and the fullbacks push onward on the flanks. This positive approach proved too much to handle for Group C, though the Colombians will naturally need to adapt a bit to cope with the rigors of knockout play.
Any alterations must protect Rodriguez’s integral role and retain the identity of the side. Colombia will need to defend more as this tournament unfolds, but this group will go only as far as its verve takes it. At this stage, it could carry this team quite far indeed.
Uruguay faces creativity deficit with or without Suarez
Colombia will not feel particularly threatened about meeting Uruguay on Saturday given the evidence on hand. Uruguay remains a competent and organized side with considerable resolve, but its lack of panache once again rose to the fore in the controversial and labored 1-0 victory over Italy to book a place in the final 16.
Italy essentially dictated the terms of a pretty putrid game before Claudio Marchisio earned his dismissal for a rash tackle. Luis Suarez carved out one half-chance in the first half and created another for Cristian Rodriguez moments before Marchisio marched off, but Uruguay largely found itself restricted in midfield with both teams deploying 3-5-2 setups at the outset. Nicolas Lodeiro retained his place after a good showing against England and slide into decent spaces, but his lack of influence – particularly with Marco Verratti closing down earnestly in midfield – restricted the supply into Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Tabarez pulled Lodeiro off at the break and threw Maxi Pereira into the fray to alter his shape, but the measures did not prompt much of an uptick after the interval. Uruguay huffed and puffed, but it only applied intermittent pressure on Gianluigi Buffon before Diego Godin punctuated his man-of-the-match display by bundling home the winner nine minutes from time.
Uruguay may need to rely on the set piece route once again if Suarez is indeed banned for the date with Colombia. There is plenty of graft in the side to cancel out the opposition, but the dearth of incisiveness aside from Suarez leaves Tabarez and his players exposed if Colombia can use its mobility and its pace to find a way through on Saturday
Greece musters a threat on the counter to dispatch out-of-sorts Côte d’Ivoire
There are few surprises surrounding this Greek squad at this point. The names have changed, but the philosophy remains largely the same. Greece is going to sit back, soak up pressure and try to strike on the counter. Its effective implementation of those principles in the decisive third match led to a 2-1 win over Côte d’Ivoire and secure a first trip to the round of 16.
Greece deserved the considerable reward for its improved display against the Ivorians. This remains a limited side, but it does pose some threat against teams who do not pick up the right spots on the break. Côte d’Ivoire struggled to recover properly for much of this match or thwart the Greeks as they pushed numbers forward intelligently without leaving themselves exposed at the back. Their production on the day – two goals (one from the spot, one from a dreadful Cheick Tiote turnover) and three shots off the frame –reflected the Greeks’ improved precision after two largely innocuous displays.
If there is a concern for Fernando Santos, then it is the manner in which Côte d’Ivoire connected a series of passes in midfield and tore through the center of the park for its goal. That sort of sequence – direct, energetic and quick with bustling runs and tidy interplay – is well within Costa Rica’s particular set of skills. Greece cannot afford to concede that readily if it plans to continue this fairytale into the last eight.
More than likely, Greece will play its line deeply to avoid getting exposed for pace – Joel Campbell is a known quantity to all of these players after playing for Olympiacos this season – and wait for the right times to counter. José Holebas – a defender in starting position only – will charge forward to join the counter at points, but the emphasis will once again focus on consolidation and pragmatism. This victory once again reinforced the utility of those beliefs in tournament play.
Costa Rica might need to press the game against Greece … and it can
Few, if any, people outside Costa Rica expected the Ticos to top Group D, but a humdrum 0-0 draw with England guaranteed first place and set up the date with Greece on Sunday in Recife.
Costa Rica excels when it can play on the counter, but it faces more of a burden to dictate the proceedings against an obstinate Greek outfit. This side cannot goad Greece up the field as it did with Uruguay in its opening match. Greece simply won’t leave itself exposed at the back. The dynamic means Jorge Luis Pinto can either accept the idea of a stalemate (never the best idea against a Greek side accustomed to finding their way out of them successfully) or pursue a more positive course.
If Pinto opts for a more proactive approach, then he will tell his players to advance their line as they did against England and pressure the Greeks at the right times. This game likely won’t produce many opportunities to counter because Greece sits so deeply, but it will provide opportunities to combine in the middle third.
Pinto must also implore his wingbacks to overlap intelligently to provide width and stretch the shape. The absence of Alvaro Saborio robs Costa Rica of its best target man, but Cristian Gamboa and Junior Diaz do not necessarily need to create a goal with their deliveries. They merely need to open the field horizontally to create gaps for Christian Bolanos, Bryan Ruiz and Campbell to exploit inside.
Costa Rica possesses some experience with these sort of tactics after marching through CONCACAF, but the Ticos have not encounter such a disciplined proponent of the defensive game. They must keep their composure and rely on their superior physical qualities to break down the shape and find a way through to the last eight.
Switzerland pins round of 16 hopes on French neighbors
Ecuador enters the final day in Group E with the inside track to second spot. If the Ecuadorians can match Switzerland’s result, then they will go through on goal difference. The state of play means the Swiss need France to defeat Ecuador (4:00p.m. ET) to provide the best possible chance of sneaking through. The outcome in that affair depends on France’s conviction – Les Bleus are finishing top barring a heavy defeat – and Ecuador’s ability to keep the door closed on the counter.
Switzerland faces an awkward test against Honduras (4:00p.m. ET) in Manaus to complete its end of the bargain. Ottmar Hitzfeld has the better side, but Honduras will chop up the game to prevent Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka from dictating in the run of play. Switzerland must keep the ball deftly and manage its energy levels appropriately to secure the desired result.
Iran enters the final matchday in Group F with a chance of snatching second place if Nigeria loses to Argentina (12:00p.m. ET). The only problem for the Iranians: they must attack Bosnia-Herzegovina (12:00p.m. ET) at some stage in order to claim the necessary victory. Bosnia possesses the necessary tools to punish Iran if the Iranians commit too many numbers forward. Expect Iran to nurse the game along at 0-0 for a while and then try to nick a goal on the break. One goal might prove enough if the Argentines can breach the Nigerian defense (the only group yet to concede so far at this World Cup) a couple of times and secure the points in their affair.