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PREPARING FOR A CUP SANS FALCAO

Group c

Colombia finished second behind Argentina in the Conmebol qualifying phase and though they are certainly well worth their world ranking of eighth, the knee injury to their star player, Radamel Falcao, is a serious blow to their aspirations. The Colombians enjoyed a strong qualifying campaign in the South American section and recorded nine wins in total, including an emphatic 4-0 victory over Uruguay. Nine of their goals came from Monaco striker Falcao.

So desperate was the Colombia coach Jose Pekerman (in pic) that he waited till the last moment to name the squad only to find Falcao was in no position to make it for the World Cup. Falcao suffered a serious knee injury while playing for Monaco, in January.

Colombia are going to their first World Cup since the golden generation of the 1990s reached three consecutive tournaments, although those achievements will always be overshadowed by the murder of defender Andres Escobar in 1994. After appearing in Italy in 1990, the US in 1994 and France in 1998, Colombia failed to make the grade until they finished second in the South American qualifiers for this tournament.

Pekerman has managed to mould a host of high calibre attacking players into a system that facilitates some enthralling play. In the absence of Falcao, a lot would depend on his Monaco teammate James Rodriguez to steer the Los Cafeteros to the next level. Rodriguez’s quick dribbling, accurate crossing and eye for a through-ball have made him one of Colombia's main creative force since his debut in 2011.

Rodriguez would be joined by a group of stellar attacking players that Colombia are set to unleash on the world stage this summer. Slowly but surely, this team has developed into a side that look a bit like the real deal. Not only did they comfortably qualify from their group, but they have beaten some top class opposition in friendly games too — most notably when they travelled to Europe and beat Belgium on their own pitch. Pekerman’s team may not have the flamboyance of Francisco Maturana’s side of the early 90s when Carlos Valderrama pulled the strings. While Rodriguez would be expected to lead from the midfield, a sturdy defence built around veteran centre-backs Luis Amaranto Perea and captain Mario Yepes should be there to help the team out in rough weather.

KEY PLAYERS

Juan Cuadrado: He has lots of pace that helps him play tirelessly from box to box and beat players on runs with the ball. For the Fiorentina winger, this World Cup could be his big moment. Using his speed to dazzle the defenders, the winger is also an opportunist in the penalty area, scoring 15 times in 42 appearances for his Italian club last season.

James Rodriguez: The former Porto forward was snapped up by Monaco last summer for a fee in the region of 45 million euros. Rodriguez’s dribbling is tricky and tight, and when this is combined with his supreme agility and powerful frame, it makes him an undeniably tough prospect for opposition defenders.

Mario Yepes: The seasoned defender will finally play in a World Cup after nearly 100 matches with the national team. The 38-year-old former Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan defender thrived at club level, but his only title with Colombia was the 2001 Copa America.

Greece have been a little more adventurous under Fernando Santos (in pic), and a group containing Colombia, Ivory Coast and Japan certainly presents them with a realistic chance of qualification. It can only be hoped that Santos' men back up some of their pre-tournament confidence with a bold approach when the tournament gets under way.

The 2004 Euro champions head into the World Cup with plenty of confidence though they qualified through the play-offs. Santos’ side finished second on goal difference to Bosnia-Herzegovina in one of the relatively weaker qualifying groups.

But Greece dropped points in just two of their 10 matches, a 3-1 defeat away to Bosnia last March following a 0-0 draw between the sides in Athens.

They were the only slip-ups in a group also containing Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein. Santos’ side duly dispatched Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the play-offs, with Kostas Mitroglou’s three goals making him the hero of the hour.

A lot will depend on the Fulham striker, who is nursing a knee injury, and his form at the tournament. His goals are likely to spell the difference between a spot in the next stage or a short stay. But he, like the rest of the team, will need to improve because he has had a miserable build-up to the tournament.

Greece’s biggest advantage is that manager Santos is a man of huge experience.

With a long and successful career managing league teams in Greece and Portugal, Santos was named national team coach in 2010.

Known for making his teams hard to beat, the Portuguese has maintained Greece’s knack of digging deep and reaching major tournaments.

His emphasis on defending doggedly does not always sit well with the spectators expecting free-flowing football at international level, but Santos is just the type of man who could guide the nation into the second round for the first time in their history.

KEY PLAYERS

Kostas Mitroglu: Despite developing as a player in the German nursery system, the Greek fans see Mitroglu very much as one of their own. Mitroglu has only risen to prominence over the last couple of years and is now a first team regular at Olympiakos after impressing as a super sub last season.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos: Greece are probably going to need to do a fair bit of defending out in Brazil, but they have a hugely-talented centre-back among their ranks in the form of Sokratis Papastathopoulos. The 27-year-old, who captains the side, is a consistent performer who knows all about pressure at the highest level.

Giorgos Karagounis: The experienced midfielder has been a mainstay in the Greek side for over a decade. With 132 caps to his name, the veteran is a hugely-reliable presence for his country. During his 15 years in and around the international setup, Karagounis has scored 10 goals.

Brazil will see Didier Drogba make his final bow for Ivory Coast at a major tournament, but the West African country hopes a new generation of strikers can drive them past the first round at the World Cup finals. After twice being drawn in tough groups, it could finally prove to be third-time lucky for the Ivory Coast, who feel they have had a change in tournament fortunes. They have a modest World Cup group this summer and will be fancied to get past the first round after missing out in 2006 and 2010.

Along with Nigeria, they were the only African side to end unbeaten. They easily topped their preliminary group ahead of Morocco before winning a play-off against Senegal 4-2 on aggregate.

The Ivorians will, however, be under the microscope following successive failures at five past African Nations Cup tournaments, where they started each as favouriteand yet failed to climb the winners' podium. It has earned the West African team the tag of “chokers”. Add in their two previous World Cup finals appearances in Germany and South Africa and there is a lot of experience about the squad, but also a lingering sense of under-achievement.

This summer, much of the focus will be on Drogba and the three-time African Footballer of the Year, Yaya Toure, as the country seeks to advance to the second round. And that is the extent of their ambition, according to coach Sabri Lamouchi (in pic), as they take on Colombia, Greece and Japan.

Lamouchi has set up a solid team. ‘The Elephants’ are pragmatic and press the opposition well, when they have got the ball they are capable of expressing themselves and playing some fluid, attacking football.

Blessed with attacking options, who are different from each other, they will strike fear into any opponent; Drogba, Wilfried Bony and Seydou Doumbia are all strikers who can offer something different, whilst support in the wide areas should be plentiful from Solomon Kalou and a rejuvenated Gervinho. Behind their front line lies a solid, defensive wall who are focused on physically dominating their midfield counterparts.

KEY PLAYERS

Wilfried Bony: Bony made name at Vitesse Arnhem with 36 goals in 36 matches in the 2012-13 season that saw him named Dutch player of the year. Swansea paid club-record 12 million for his services last summer and his goals have kept Swansea safe in Premier League.

Didier Drogba: Despite entering the twilight years of his career, Drogba is still the man for the grand stage. A whopping 63 goals in 99 games for his country tells about his consistency and his physical style of football is sure to ruffle a few feathers at the tournament. The Ivorians will also look to him to provide solid leadership if they encounter difficulties. Drogba has matured in recent years into the kind of player that will rally those around him.

Yaya Toure: Capable of doing pretty much anything the modern game demands of midfield players, Toure will arrive at Brazil as one of the most complete players in the world. Deceptively quick and strong in the tackle, he is the ideal mould for the perfect defensive midfielder.

Japan became the first team to qualify for the competition when Keisuke Honda scored in injury time to secure a 1-1 draw against Australia. That late strike ensured they finished the group with a four-point lead, and they suffered only one defeat in their entire qualifying campaign.

But then, Japan, like their fellow Asian qualifiers, know that while it is one thing to reach the World Cup finals, it is another matter to do well once there. And while Alberto Zaccheroni’s (in pic) side will be looking to at least equal their round of 16 finish last time out, the coach knows that the team's defensive frailties need to be addressed. Zaccheroni, Japan’s 4th manager in their five World Cup finals visits, is considered a legend in Italy, having managed through their leagues for 27 years. He took over the Japanese national team in 2010, introducing a hybrid 4-2-3-1/ 3-4-3 formation, looking to utilize Japan's underrated attacking talent.

Zaccheroni will be looking for consistency from his young side after a slow start to the qualification campaign while their record from 2013 is fairly mixed with eight wins, three draws and eight defeats. On the attack, the side has produced both goals and spectacles, most impressively the narrow 4-3 loss to Italy in the Confederations Cup. However, the defensive problems have been there for all to see and were exposed during a shaky 4-2 win over New Zealand in a friendly in March. And while Zaccheroni may also have a surprise up his sleeve, the mood in the country remains cautiously optimistic.

Colombia are the standout team in the group and Japan generally struggle against the big teams from the American continents.

They lost 3-0 to Brazil and 2-1 to Mexico at the Confederations Cup, and 4-2 to Uruguay in a friendly in August. However, their record against African countries is better, not least a victory over Cameroon in the opening game of the 2010 finals and a 3-1 win over Ghana last September.

And as proved against Italy, Holland and Belgium, European oppositions hold no special fear for Japan, so they will be hoping for good results against Ivory Coast and Greece.

KEY PLAYERS

Keisuke Honda: The AC Milan forward is a key part of the Japanese squad thanks to his mix of clever positional play and clinical finishing. With a keen footballing mind, Honda’s goals played a big role in his country reaching the finals.

Shinji Kagawa: The Japanese has been an underused player for Manchester United, having signed in 2012. While at Borussia Dortmund, he was named in the Bundesliga Team of the Season and as of last year, he was named as the Asian International Footballer of the Year. Along with Keisuke Honda, Kagawa is Japan’s main attacking man.

Shinji Okazaki: The prolific international scorer with 38 goals for Japan, scored 15 times in 31 Bundesliga matches as Mainz captured seventh position - good for a trip to the Europa League. While Kagawa and Honda will be asked to create from behind, Okazaki will be responsible for finishing up front.