Colombia favored in Group C of World Cup
May. 30, 2014
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Group C has a favorite, Colombia, though uncertainty still hangs over its star player. And if all goes well for the South Americans, that leaves Greece, Japan, and Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast to fight for the group's other spot in the round of 16 at this year's World Cup in Brazil.
Here are five things to know about Group C:
FALCAO: FINGERS CROSSED
After the draw in December, Colombia was made an early favourite to advance from Group C. But that was before Colombia striker Radamel Falcao damaged ligaments in his left knee in a French Cup game against an amateur team.
The 28-year-old joined teammates in preliminary selection but coach Jose Pekerman still hasn't got the green light from his doctors.
"For Falcao, we'll wait till the last second," Pekerman said. "He's a valuable player for us and we want him there ... He's done his job — everything he possibly can to recover in time."
The "Coffee Growers" from Colombia rolled through qualifying, even routing Uruguay 4-0 on their way to earning 30 points from 16 matches.
Falcao sealed qualification with two late goals against Chile, coming from behind for a 3-3 home draw.
Under Argentine coach Pekerman, Colombia has blossomed, rising from 35th place in the world rankings to the top five and their first World Cup in 16 years.
Pekerman's opening match is against Greece, Europe's defensive stalwarts who conceded only four goals in 10 qualifiers.
SO LONG SANTOS
Greece coach Fernando Santos will step down after the World Cup, but says he's glad to help lift the country's spirits after it endured four years of severe financial crisis.
"The Greeks have been so warm to me, so welcoming. It feels great to give them some joy and hope that things will get better," the Portuguese coach said.
Santos has stuck with striker Kostas Mitroglou despite his troubled move to Premier League club Fulham but had to drop defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who has missed matches at Schalke for 13 months due to a knee injury.
Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis remains motivator-in-chief at age 37, playing in eight qualifiers and both playoffs to reach a record 132 appearances for the national team.
Japan will be looking for Keisuke Honda to provide a spark in Brazil, but the bleach-haired forward has had an unsettling time at AC Milan since joining this year from CSKA Moscow.
Honda scored an injury-time penalty against Australia to make Japan the first team to qualify for this year's tournament, leading coach Alberto Zaccheroni to promise that his team was ready to "surprise the world."
But Japan's euphoria was tempered by a friendly against Cyprus this week, when the hosts only prevailed with a 1-0 win.
"Winning by one goal is definitely not enough," Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa said. "We must train hard to improve."
Didier Drogba remains at the center of Ivory Coast's hopes, despite turning 36 last month.
The Ivorians qualified comfortably under French coach Sabri Lamouchi, and were further relieved to avoid a tough draw this time around.
They faced Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006, and Brazil and Portugal at the last World Cup — finishing third both times. If Ivory Coast makes it through this year, there will be not let up in the round of 16 with the team likely to face a former World Cup winner in either Italy, England or Uruguay.
"That's what I want, for the Elephants to take on tough opponents," Lamouchi said. "We want to raise our standards, our concentration, our determination ... We are raising our game."
Follow Gatopoulos on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos