Key Battles That Will Shape Japan's World Cup Clash with Colombia
Japan need a win against Colombia on Tuesday to have any chance of joining their opponents in the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup. With the onus on Japan to attack, it is likely to be an open and exciting match.
Colombia are already guaranteed a place in the next round and their coach, Jose Pekerman, could elect to rest some of his regular starters. Japan have been disappointing in both of their matches so far and need to produce a much better performance on Tuesday.
Here are the key battles that will shape the World Cup clash between Japan and Colombia.
Hotaru Yamaguchi and Makoto Hasebe vs. James Rodriguez / Juan Quintero
Hotaru Yamaguchi and Makoto Hasebe have formed Japan’s defensive midfield duo in both of their matches to date, and they are again likely do so on Tuesday. Between them, the pair did a solid job against Yaya Toure in the defeat to Ivory Coast. They will have to be similarly alert against Colombia's vibrant attacking midfielders.
James Rodriguez has been the star of Colombia’s World Cup campaign. He has been heavily involved in all five of their goals, scoring twice himself. With silky dribbling skills, a keen eye for a pass and a powerful shot to his credit, he is a handful for any opponent.
Pekerman may choose to rest Rodriguez for Tuesday’s match, in which case Juan Quintero, a comparably talented but less experienced player, will take his place in the starting XI.
But it is not just in their defensive work that Yamaguchi and Hasebe will have to be vigilant.
Rodriguez has shown himself to have both the mobility and awareness to win the ball back high up the pitch—as he did in the build-up to Quintero’s goal against Ivory Coast. Such efforts will be particularly important against Japan, as Yamaguchi is often their conduit between defence and attack.
It stands to reason that putting pressure on Yamaguchi could be the key to stopping Japan from transitioning effectively from one end of the pitch to the other.
Keisuke Honda vs. Alexander Mejia
Keisuke Honda scored Japan’s only goal of the tournament so far when he fired high into the back of the net from to open the scoring in the 2-1 defeat to Ivory Coast.
Honda is not the sort of attacking midfielder who regularly influences play. He can rarely be found controlling the tempo or directing his side’s attacking operations. With his powerful shooting ability, he is, however, a player who can change the course of a match in an instant.
Carlos Sanchez was Colombia’s primary defensive midfielder during their first two matches, performing well on both occasions. He did a particularly good job against Yaya Toure in the victory over Ivory Coast, showing good strength and timing his tackles perfectly.
However, per El Tiempo (in Spanish), Sanchez is likely to be rested from Tuesday’s match. He is one booking away from a suspension and Pekerman is loathe to risk losing him for Colombia’s second-round fixture.
In his absence, Alexander Mejia looks most likely to start. The Atletico Nacional midfielder has similar characteristics to Sanchez and will be tasked with keeping tabs on Honda. It is important he maintains his concentration and is aware of Honda’s whereabouts at all times. One slip may be enough for Honda to make his mark.
Japan’s Full-Backs vs. Colombia’s Wingers
Japan’s full-backs got forward well in the early stages of the draw with Greece, stretching the play and getting into some decent positions. However, neither Atsuto Uchida nor Yuto Nagatomo were able to produce a telling final ball and their influence waned once Greece went down to 10 men and brought everyone back behind the ball.
The full-backs are again likely to have a big role to play on Tuesday. Japan will need to get numbers into the final third and Uchida and Nagatomo are two of their most willing forward-runners.
The fact that Pekerman is likely to rotate some of his players means it is difficult to predict who will be the direct opponents of Japan’s full-backs. If he sticks with his regular XI, it will be the tricky Juan Cuadrado and strong and direct Victor Ibarbo; if not, Adrian Ramos and Carlos Carbonero could be in line to start.
There also exists the possibility that Colombia could change formation and use a narrower midfield alignment.
Whatever the formation, Pekerman will be keen to limit the effectiveness of Japan's full-backs. Right-back Serge Aurier created problems for his defence in the closing minutes of the victory over Ivory Coast, producing some dangerous crosses into the penalty area.
But Pekerman will also be aware of opportunities to counter-attack into the space behind Japan's forward-thinking full-backs—something his side did to good effect in the win over Ivory Coast.