Colombia secured top spot in Group C and a last-16 meeting with Uruguay after an impressive 4-1 victory over Japan on Tuesday.
With qualification for the knockout stage already secured, coach Jose Pekerman made a number of changes to his side, but striker Jackson Martinez nevertheless scored twice in the second half to ensure his team finished the group stages with a perfect record.
Juan Cuadrado opened the scoring in the 17th minute from the penalty spot after Adrian Ramos had been brought down in the box, before Shinji Okazaki levelled matters with the last action of the first half with a pinpoint header.
Then Martinez stepped up, slotting home from close range after an astute pass from the impressive James Rodriguez 10 minutes into the second half.
Japan, who still had the chance to progress to the knockout stages with a victory, poured forward in the final 20 minutes but, despite the efforts of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Yoshito Okubo, were unable to make a breakthrough—as Martinez scored his second on the counter-attack to clinch the match.
With the game already decided, 43-year-old Faryd Mondragon was brought on in the 85th minute to become the oldest player ever to appear at a World Cup. Then, in the 89th minute, Rodriguez himself rounded off the scoring—completing a mazy run with a nonchalant flick over goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s side ultimately finished fourth in the final standings, with just one point from their three games.
Perhaps with one eye on the knockout rounds and the other eye on giving some of his fringe squad members some playing time, Colombia boss Pekerman made a number of changes to his side, with Ramos and Martinez given the chance to impress in attack, Fredy Guarin named in midfield, and the highly rated Eder Alvarez Balanta inserted in the heart of the defence.
Japan, meanwhile, went slightly more aggressive than in recent games—with both Kagawa and Honda included in the starting XI, as Zaccheroni set his side out to chase the goals they surely needed.
Initially at least the tactic seemed to work, with Japan producing a number of shots in the first half. Okubo missed a couple of great early openings, and Kagawa and Honda both tested Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina from long range.
After 17 minutes Colombia were ahead, however, much to the delight of the partisan crowd in Cuiaba. Having failed to create a shot of note prior to that the South Americans were rather gifted the chance; defender Yasuyuki Konno carelessly bringing down the onrushing Ramos inside the box for a clear penalty.
It was an unnecessary challenge, and Cuadrado made no mistake in lashing the resultant spot-kick into the bottom corner.
Japan responded well, although Colombia’s slightly unfamiliar back line held firm as most of their chances were restricted either to long-range shots or snap shots inside the box under great pressure.
The equaliser eventually came, right on the stroke of half-time. There appeared to be little real danger when Honda picked up the ball out on the right, but the AC Milan player picked out a perfect ball for Okazaki, who beat his man to nod a tidy header inside Ospina’s near post.
There was not even time for Colombia to restart, as the referee blew for half-time as Japan’s players continued celebrating.
For the second half Colombia made two changes, with Rodriguez coming on for Cuadrado, who was seemingly being rested. His influence was almost immediate, the AS Monaco star helping his side retain pressure and look far more dangerous on the counter-attack.
Within 10 minutes that improvement would bring a tangible reward. Rodriguez was the creator but Martinez was the beneficiary, as he received his team-mate’s selfless ball before lashing his shot across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
With the lead restored Colombia began to sit back a little bit, allowing Japan more room to push forward. They had their openings but were unable to capitalise, with Okubo arguably guilty of squandering the best chances.
It seemed almost inevitable that Colombia, growing more and more relaxed as time eroded, would punish them, and so it proved. It was Martinez who did so first, the Porto striker getting released into space by Rodriguez's perceptive pass, before showing his composure as he cut inside onto his left foot and curled his shot inside the far post.
That was it; the game was won. Colombia would top Group C and Japan were going home.
In the closing moments there was still time for an emotional touch, as goalkeeper Mondragon came on. The 43-year-old, who went to the 1994 World Cup, was not asked to do anything of note.
Instead, the final incident would come at the other end, as Rodriguez got the goal his second-half cameo deserved. Played through on goal the youngster twisted and turned inside the covering Japan defender, before lobbing the onrushing Kawashima with insouciant ease.
On this evidence, Uruguay will have to up their game significantly to stop them. If they are without Luis Suarez, as looks eminently possible after his biting incident against Italy, that will prove an altogether tougher prospect. If Colombia have one weakness it might well be in defence, but Uruguay look poorly equipped to exploit that without the Liverpool forward.
On the other hand, they may have a more organised and prepared defence than Colombia have so far faced in this tournament. But that is for the days ahead.
For now Colombia are through, unbeaten, with their ambitions for the tournament growing with every victory.
|Japan Player Ratings|
|Player||Half-time rating||Full-time rating|
|Colombia Player Ratings|
|Player||Half-time rating||Full-time rating|
|Eder Alvarez Balanta||6||6|
After the game Colombia coach Pekerman lavished praise on James Rodriguez. He told The Associated Press (via The Arizona Republic):
I think what James has done today simply demonstrates what we expected from him.
From the beginning of this World Cup, he has shown that he is very well physically, is fit and that we can expect a lot from him.
Japan coach Zaccheroni tipped Colombia to do well in the knockout stages (per the AP):
Colombia has the talent of the [world's] big teams right now. It will go a long way.
Finally, Mondragon paid tribute to Pekerman after his record-breaking night. He said (per Sportal):
Jose Pekerman convinced me to continue playing. I will never forget that.
If it wasn't for him, I would have retired two years ago. I feel privileged to be here, it was my best birthday ever.