It's going to be an uphill battle for either Greece or Japan to get into the top two of Group C in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but both sides can take steps in that direction in Thursday's critical match in Natal, Brazil.
A 3-0 loss to group leader Colombia in the opener has Greece in an early hole in the standings and in the all-important goal differential. Japan was more competitive in their 2-1 loss to Ivory Coast, but will have to stave off a Greek club in desperation mode.
ESPN Stats & Info provided an update of Group C's outlook and how it pertains to this match after Colombia knocked off Ivory Coast 2-1 earlier on Thursday:
Colombia will advance to the Knockout Round with a Greece win/draw vs Japan today. Colombia's only #WorldCup Knockout Round app was in 1990.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 19, 2014
Two straight wins are almost a must for Greece to get to the knockout stage, while Japan can ill afford to tie. With a matchup versus Colombia looming in the finale, this is essentially a must-win scenario for the Samurai Blue.
Below is a look at the Group C standings, followed by a preview and prediction of the impending Japan-Greece showdown, which commences at 6 p.m. ET.
Japan vs. Greece Preview and Prediction
Since both teams will be scrapping for any possible edge, this may not be the prettiest display of football. Keisuke Honda and striker Shinji Okazaki, who plays for Bundesliga club Mainz, lead Japan’s attack. Okazaki didn't score against Ivory Coast as Honda did, but he figures to have multiple great chances even against a stout Greece backfield.
Which side will be the second to advance in Group C?
But the Japanese defence is nothing to boast about, which could bolster the confidence of the modest Greece offense to push forward and be aggressive. All of these players will be under a massive amount of pressure, so there's reason to believe the action will be fast-paced but not necessarily executed well.
Defender Yuto Nagatomo knows that the Piratiko will be difficult to penetrate up front.
"You can see that Greece is a really compact team, their defence is really tight," said Nagatomo, per FIFA.com. "Their forwards are good at countering and closing down, and that's something we have to work on: countering. They're certainly very strong opponents."
Greece would likely be favored if not for their flat performance against a formidable Colombia side to get the tournament off on the wrong foot. BSports.com's power rankings list Greece at No. 14 and Japan in 20th overall.
The Samurai Blue have been susceptible to set pieces and conceding opportunities in the penalty box, but Greece has shown their own poor form and will be looking to snap an unenviable streak, per Elias Sports Bureau:
Look for Greece veteran defensive midfielder Kostas Katsouranis to rally the young and dynamic Piratiko backfield. They will bounce back from an uncommon letdown against Colombia, which will help them pull out a thrilling victory to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
Gaining steam with three points heading into a battle against Ivory Coast would almost render the goal differential useless. It would set up a win-or-go-home scenario, as Colombia will have already advanced. But fortunes could change quickly for the Greeks if they only manage a draw. Colombia will clinch a berth in the knockout stage following Greece's win or tie.
That would allow Colombia to then have the luxurious option of resting their players in the last group fixture versus Japan. Since the result would have little bearing on them, Japan could sneak their way into the top two.
The intensity is riling up in the 2014 World Cup, and the outcome of this match, while not as hyped as the other Thursday fixtures, will go a long way in determining the second Group C team in the Round of 16 picture.
Prediction: Greece 2, Japan 1