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World Cup Group H: Coffee, tea, or three points? Colombia v Japan

Tuesday 19th June 2018

Colombia and Japan will kick off their World Cup campaigns on Tuesday afternoon when they meet in Saransk. The game will be the opener in Group H, which on paper looks like it might be the tightest group in the competition.

Of the four Group H sides, Colombia are the only one with any recent World Cup pedigree. Los Cafeteros reached the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago. 

Japan have never made much of an impression at the World Cup. Their best finish was the last 16, twice, in 2002 and 2010. 

Colombia and Japan have now been matched in consecutive tournaments. The South Americans blew the Asians away, 4-1, at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba. Colombia remain favourites but it won't be so easy this time. 

Colombia

FIFA Ranking: 16th

Colombia enter this game in reasonable form, unbeaten in their last four warm-up games since losing a friendly to South Korea in November. That run represents a huge boost from their struggles at the end of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. In a good early position, they fell across the finish line with three points from their last four games. The final match was the draw with Peru that guaranteed both a place in the top five. 

Taking a team to a major tournament won't hold any fears for Colombia boss, Jose Pekerman. This will be the Argentine's third World Cup. He took his home country to the quarter-finals in 2006 before guiding Colombia four years ago. In both tournaments, his teams lost to the hosts in the last eight. You can be sure he is delighted the draw includes no possibility of Colombia and Russia meeting in a quarterfinal. 

Pekerman's biggest issue will be finding the balance that allows his two star players, Falcao and James Rodriguez, to co-exist. Falcao missed the 2014 World Cup whereas James was the star performer, but there is a feeling within the country the team isn't as well balanced with both on the field. 

Outside those two, Colombia do have other star names. Juan Cuadrado is an excellent player. Tottenham's Davinson Sanchez should also start alongside Barcelona protege, Yerry Mina. 

Japan

FIFA Ranking: 61st

Japan come into the tournament after a confidence-lifting 4-2 win over Paraguay gave them their first win of 2018, following a draw and three defeats in their previous four warmup games. The Blue Samurai qualified comfortably in Asia, finishing top of their group ahead of fellow qualifiers Saudi Arabia and Australia. 

Neither the Green Falcons nor Socceroos looked particularly impressive in their opening games. If Japan are to come through this group, they will have to be considerably better than their rivals were in their openers. 

Japan coach Akira Nishino is facing a real baptism of fire. Tuesday's game will be his first competitive match in charge of the team. Vahid Halilhodzic had been in charge of the side for the last three years, leading them to the World Cup before getting the sack in April. Nishino was appointed shortly afterwards.

Japan will line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation featuring Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. Other key players, include Takashi Inui, who has just signed for Real Betis, captain Makoto Hasebe and Galatasaray's Yuto Nagatomo. However, it looks like Shinji Okazaki, their top scorer, will miss the game through injury. 

Prediction

Nobody wants to lose their opening World Cup game. Thus, the vast majority of opening fixtures have been tight affairs. There's little reason to suggest this will be any different. Japan will be the underdogs and should recognise Colombia have a few match winners who can't be given any space. James and Falcao, in particular, will be closely watched. It won't be the romp it was in Brazil, but Colombia should still be too good not to start their campaign with a victory. 

Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.


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