World Cup preview: Group C

Sports Mole previews Group C at this summer's World Cup, with Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan battling it out to reach the second round.

COLOMBIA

How they qualified: The Colombians enjoyed a strong qualifying campaign in the South American section, finishing two points behind group leaders Argentina. They recorded nine wins in total, including an emphatic 4-0 victory over Uruguay. Meanwhile, there were three draws and four defeats. The bulk of their goals came from Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, who showed that he remains their main man by netting nine times.

Manager: Jose Pekerman: The wily Argentine has reinvigorated Colombian football, bringing back a confidence to the national team that has been missing in recent years. The 64-year-old took charge of the side a quarter of the way through their qualifying campaign, but he was able to hit the ground running with impressive wins over Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay. This will be the second World Cup that Pekerman has managed in following his run with Argentina to the quarter-finals in 2006.

Colombia's coach, Argentine Jose Pekerman, gives instructions to the players during their Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup South American qualifier match against Ecuador, in Barranquilla, Colombia, on September 6, 2013© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Second round, 1990

Squad:

Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Nice), Faryd Mondragon (Deportivo Cali), Camilo Vargas (Santa Fe)

Defenders: Mario Yepes (Atalanta), Aquivaldo Mosquera (America, Mexico), Cristian Zapata (AC Milan), Carlos Valdes (San Lorenzo), Amaranto Perea (Cruz Azul), Eder Alvarez Balanta (River Plate), Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), Camilo Zuniga (Napoli), Pablo Armero (West Ham)

Midfielders: Carlos Sanchez (Elche), Fredy Guarin (Inter Milan), Abel Aguilar (Toulouse), Elkin Soto (Mainz), Aldo Leao Ramirez (Morelia), Juan Fernando Quintero (Porto), Víctor Ibarbo (Cagliari), James Rodriguez (Monaco), Macnelly Torres (Al Shabab), Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (Fiorentina), Edwin Valencia (Fluminense), Alexander Mejia (Atletico Nacional)

Strikers: Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Jackson Martinez (Porto), Carlos Bacca (Sevilla), Adrian Ramos (Hertha Berlin), Luis Fernando Muriel (Udinese), Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate)

Three Key Players:

Camilo Zuniga: The full-back, who plays his club football in Italy for Napoli, is sure to be a vital part of the Colombia squad out in Brazil thanks to his wealth of experience at international level. The 28-year-old played all but one of Colombia's matches during qualifying, taking his tally to 44 caps. Zuniga is also known for his versatility and his ability to make marauding runs down the wing to help his teammates in attack.

Defender Camilo Zuniga in action for Colombia against Ecuador on September 06, 2013.© Getty Images

Radamel Falcao: Considered to be one of the most lethal strikers in world football, a lot of Colombia's hopes will be pinned on Falcao during the World Cup this summer. However, there are still plenty of doubts over the 28-year-old's fitness after undergoing surgery on a knee injury back in January. If he is fully fit, the forward will give his country an important presence in the opposition penalty area. A scorer of all types of goals, Falcao could well be among the tournament's top scorers if he remains healthy and Colombia progress past the group stage.

Jackson Martinez: The lightning-quick Porto forward netted 23 goals in 41 games last season, but he is yet to really impress on the international stage. With 26 caps to his name, Martinez has only scored eight times at international level. That said, opposition defences will want to keep an eye on him during the tournament because he has the ability to change a game in an instant with his explosive turn of pace and robust physicality.


GREECE

How they qualified: The Greeks eased through their European qualifying campaign thanks to eight wins from 10 games. However, an inferior goal difference saw them finish in second place behind Bosnia and Herzegovina in their group. Five of their victories were narrow 1-0 scorelines, while their only defeat was a 3-1 loss away to Bosnia. Their top scorer was Dimitris Salpingidis with three goals.

Manager: Fernando Santos: 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 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.

Greece manager Fernando Santos celebrates his side scoring a goal on November 19, 2013.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Group stage, 1994, 2010

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Orestis Karnezis (Granada), Panagiotis Glykos (PAOK), Stefanos Kapino (Panathinaikos)

Defenders: Kostas Manolas, Jose Holebas (both Olympiakos), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Borussia Dortmund), Vangelis Moras (Verona), Giorgos Tzavellas (PAOK), Loukas Vyntra (Levante), Vasilis Torosidis (Roma)

Midfielders: Alexandros Tziolis (Kayserispor), Andreas Samaris (Olympiakos), Giannis Maniatis (Olympiakos), Kostas Katsouranis (PAOK), Giorgos Karagounis (Fulham), Panagiotis Tachtsidis (Torino), Giannis Fetfatzidis (Genoa), Lazaros Christodoulopoulos (Bologna), Panagiotis Kone (Bologna)

Strikers: Dimitris Salpingidis (PAOK), Giorgos Samaras (Celtic), Kostas Mitroglou (Fulham), Fanis Gekas (Konyaspor)

Three Key Players:

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. Playing his club football in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, Papastathopoulos is the rock of the Greek backline.

Greece defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos holds off a challenge from German striker Mario Gomez on June 22, 2012.© Getty Images

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, so do not expect too much of him this summer from an attacking perspective. However, what he lacks in goal-scoring prowess, he makes up in fighting spirit.

Kostas Katsouranis: Similar to Karagounis, Katsouranis brings a wealth of experience to the Greek squad thanks to his 109 caps. An important part of the team's robust midfield, the 34-year-old is known for his hard-working attitude and clever tactical play. In what is likely to be his last World Cup, Katsouranis is sure to give his all for the cause out in Brazil.


IVORY COAST

How they qualified: The Ivorians romped through qualifying as they came top of their CAF group before easing past Senegal in the playoffs. They won four and drew two of their six matches in Group C, scoring 15 goals an conceding just five in the process. A 3-1 victory over Senegal in the first leg of their playoff all but put them through to the World Cup, while a 1-1 draw in the second leg sealed their progress.

Manager: Sabri Lamouchi: The 42-year-old made some bold selections for his World Cup squad, casting out one or two of the older players who have been around the Ivory Coast setup during the past few years. His appointment at the start of the country's World Cup qualifying campaign came as a surprise to many, but he has been able to build on the team's success of recent years. A man of impeccable style, Lamouchi's cool demeanor on the touchline provides a contract to the Ivory Coast's explosive football.

Ivory Coast head coach Sabri Lamouchi shouts out instructions on the touchline on January 30, 2013.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Group stage, 2006, 2010

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Boubacar Barry (Lokeren), Sayouba Mande (Stabaek), Sylvain Gbohouo (Sewe San Pedro), Ali Badra Sangare (ASEC Mimosas)

Defenders: Kolo Toure (Liverpool), Arthur Boka (Stuttgart), Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro (Toulouse), Serge Aurier (Toulouse), Ousmane Viera Diarrassouba (Caykur Rizespor), Didier Zokora (Trabzonspor), Constant Djakpa (Frankfurt), Brice Dja Djedje (Marseille), Benjamin Angoua Brou (Valenciennes), Bamba Souleymane (Trabzonspor)

Midfielders: Ismael Diomande (St Etienne), Max Gradel (St Etienne), Yaya Toure (Manchester City), Ismael Cheick Tiote (Newcastle), Geoffroy Serey Die (Basel), Didier Ya Konan (Hanover)

Strikers: Didier Drogba (Galatasaray), Gervinho (Roma), Salomon Kalou (Lille), Wilfried Bony (Swansea), Giovanni Sio (Basel), Mathis Bolly (Duesseldorf), Seydou Doumbia (CSKA Moscow), Lacina Traore (Everton)

Three Key Players:

Cheick Tiote: The combative Newcastle United midfielder will provide the Ivorians with plenty of bite. Possessing a great engine that allows him to surge from box to box, the 27-year-old is adept at protecting his back four and driving forward at the other end of the pitch when necessary. For all of his attributes, Tiote still has an immature streak that has got him into trouble in the past. He will need to have a cool head this summer and not let the occasion get to him.

Newcastle United midfielder Cheick Tiote performs a slide tackle while on international duty with Ivory Coast on January 22, 2013.© Getty Images

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 you that he is consistent, 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. A man who was known for his petulance as much as his prowess up front, Drogba has matured in recent years into the kind of player that will rally those around him.

Wilfried Bony: The 25-year-old striker enjoyed a stellar first season at Swansea City, scoring 25 goals in 48 games for the Welsh club. The Ivory Coast will be hoping that Bony remains hot this summer as his knack of finding the net could be their secret weapon if they want to make a deep run at the tournament. Fairly quiet outside of the penalty box, Bony comes alive when he gets close to goal. There are many strikers who have the potential to light up the World Cup, and Bony is certainly one of them.


JAPAN

How they qualified: Japan were the first team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, finishing at the top of their group with five wins. Emphatic victories over Oman and Australia saw them get off to a flying start before they sealed their progress with a 1-1 draw against Australia with one game left to play. Keisuke Honda was top of the scoring charts for Japan, netting a total of five goals.

Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni: The Italian had managed some of the biggest teams in Serie A, including AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, before taking charge of the Japanese national team in 2010. The 61-year-old has won 30 of his 52 matches while at the helm, earning a win percentage of nearly 58%. Leading the country to Asia Cup glory in 2011, this will be Zaccheroni's first World Cup as a manager.

Japan head coach Alberto Zaccheroni stands on the touchline during his side's match against Cyprus on May 27, 2014.© Getty Images

Previous World Cup best: Second round, 2002, 2010

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), Shusaku Nishikawa (Urawa Reds), Shuichi Gonda (FC Tokyo)

Defenders: Masahiko Inoha (Jubilo Iwata), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Yuto Nagatomo (Inter Milan), Masato Morishige (FC Tokyo), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke), Maya Yoshida (Southampton), Hiroki Sakai (Hannover), Gotoku Sakai (Stuttgart)

Midfielders: Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasebe (Nuremberg), Toshihiro Aoyama (Sanfrecce Hiroshima), Hotaru Yamaguchi (Cerezo Osaka)

Strikers: Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Yoshito Okubo (Kawasaki Frontale), Shinji Okazaki (Mainz), Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Nuremberg), Yoichiro Kakitani (Cerezo Osaka), Manabu Saito (Yokohama F Marinos), Yuya Osako (1860 Munich)

Three 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. Following a move to Milan last summer, Honda's debut season in Serie A was considered to be something of a disappointment. However, 20 goals in 53 games for Japan means that he should not be written off at international level.

Japan's Keisuke Honda in action against Australia on November 14, 2009.© Getty Images

Shinji Kagawa: The playmaker has cut a largely frustrated figure at Manchester United following his move from Borussia Dortmund in summer 2012, but he remains an influential presence for Japan. Blending tricky runs with superb control on the ball, the 25-year-old's 54 caps show that he has plenty of experience when it comes to the international stage. His future at Old Trafford is understood to be unclear, so the World Cup could see him catch the eye of many a club across Europe this summer.

Shinji Okazaki: The Mainz striker has scored 38 goals in 73 appearances for Japan, and they will need his goals this summer if they want to get past the group stage. With a collection of talented players behind him, Okazaki will be expected to apply the finishing touches to their neat build-up play. Expect sly runs behind defences and savvy attacking play.


Group C fixtures (KO UK time)

Saturday, June 14
Colombia vs. Greece, 5pm

Sunday, June 15
Ivory Coast vs. Japan, 2am

Thursday, June 19
Colombia vs. Greece, 5pm
Japan vs. Greece, 11pm

Tuesday, June 24
Greece vs. Ivory Coast, 9pm
Japan vs. Colombia, 9pm

Sports Mole says: 1. Ivory Coast 2. Japan 3. Colombia 4. Greece

Manchester United playmaker Shinji Kagawa celebrates scoring for Japan against South Korea on August 10, 2011.
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