x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

James Rodriguez and Colombia lay down a marker in Group C

No Falcao, no problem, writes Andy Mitten, as Colombia did everything right without their star against Greece in looking like a last-16 shoo-in against Greece on Saturday at World Cup 2014.

James Rodriguez celebrates his goal on Saturday in Colombia's 3-0 win over Greece at the 2014 World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Sergio Perez / Reuters
James Rodriguez celebrates his goal on Saturday in Colombia's 3-0 win over Greece at the 2014 World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Sergio Perez / Reuters

Judging by the mood among their fans before their opening Group C game against Greece, you would never have known that Colombia were missing their best player, Radamel Falcao.

Fifty thousand Colombians flooded into Brazil’s third city Belo Horizonte intent on enjoying their first World Cup finals since 1998. They had long suspected that Falcao would not recover in time from the cruciate ligament he ruptured in January, yet felt that their side still had enough quality to progress from a group with Greece, Japan and Ivory Coast.

Such feelings were not misplaced from the moment they took a fifth-minute lead through former West Ham defender Pablo Armero. The left-back ran straight to his bench and danced with his teammates.

This had been Colombia’s day since the impressive 62,000 capacity bowl of the Mineirao stadium began filling up with their yellow shirted fans, supporters who continued singing their national anthem even when the redeveloped stadium’s public address system had stopped playing it.

Greek fans were limited to pockets, grains of white salt on a sea of yellow pasta.

Colombia’s manager Jose Pekerman, the stoic, slim and silver-haired Argentine who managed his own country in the 2002 World Cup finals, is a hero in his adopted country.

If he wanted to stop the exuberant celebrations in front of his eyes, he probably realised that even he could not change a desire to celebrate having been out of football’s spotlight for so long.

If Colombia needed more control, then the anaemic Greece were not the team to exploit their exuberance.

Colombia, known as “Los Cafeteros”, benefited from Brazil not needing to qualify, but still finished a hugely impressive second to Argentina in the nine-team group. Falcao’s nine goals helped of course, but Colombia also kept more clean sheets than any other team and in Monaco’s James Rodriguez, they boasted a playmaker who provided 43 chances – more than any other player in the group.

Colombia’s confidence is founded on results.

They beat Chile, Peru and Paraguay away in qualifying and held Argentina away, too. They hammered Uruguay 4-0 at home and only lost at altitude to Ecuador and 2-1 at home to Argentina.

They boast promising youngsters, though Pekerman went for experience and the presence of Mario Yepes, their 38-year-old captain. He is still playing in Serie A with Atalanta, while fellow defender Cristian Zapata is at nearby AC Milan.

With a bench against Greece that contained regular first teamers from Sevilla, Porto, River Plate and Inter Milan, Colombia are rightly seen as dark horses. Confidence will come from more results like the three goals and three points they picked up against this Greece team, which lacked attacking instinct.

Colombia had lost three of their four previous opening World Cup games so their victory and the form of Rodriguez, plus the theatrics and rabble rousing of Amero will lift them hugely.

Pekerman is astute. Faced with a defence not known to offer too many opportunities, he switched Colombia to a 4-2-3-1, and they attacked from the whistle.

Greece had their best spell before half time when they were trailing by that early goal, but Colombia’s second in the 58th minute saw the South Americans finally relax.

That was a mistake, for the unmarked Theofanis Gekas drove a header against the bar a minute later. It was as close as they got, and by the time Rodriguez had scored an injury time third, Greece were buried.

Without a tournament favourite in the group, the 2004 European champions will have two chances to progress against Ivory Coast and Japan. Colombia, meanwhile, have made themselves group favourites thanks to their eye-catching, attacking play.

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