CUIABA, BRAZIL – A second-half attacking master class from Jackson Martinez and substitute James Rodriguez obliterated Japan’s wafer-thin hopes of progressing to the last 16 of the World Cup as Colombia eliminated the Asian champions with a 4-1 win in their final Group C match on Tuesday.
Juan Cuadrado put the already qualified South Americans ahead from the penalty spot before Shinji Okazaki kept Japan in contention by heading an equalizer on the stroke of halftime.
But Japan fell behind as Martinez struck his first on 55 minutes, and after going for broke Samurai Blue suffered a fatal blow when Martinez made it 3-1 in the 82nd.
Rodriguez, architect for both of Martinez’ efforts, wrapped up Colombia’s third straight win in the 90th minute.
“That we couldn’t produce results on the big stage proves we’re still soft,” Okazaki said. “We were able to carry the ball forward but failed to finish on too many occasions.”
Greece advanced from the group along with Colombia after a 2-1 win over Cote d’Ivoire. Greece finished with four points and Cote d’Ivoire three, while Japan, which lost 2-1 to Cote d’Ivoire and could only manage a 0-0 draw against 10-man Greece, ended bottom of the group with one.
Colombia faces Group D runnerup Uruguay and Greece takes on Costa Rica in the second round.
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni admitted his players, who needed a win and a favorable result in the Greece-Cote d’Ivoire game to stand any chance of progressing, had not played to their potential in Brazil but said he would delay talking about whether he would stay on as coach until he returned to Japan.
“Now we will go back to Japan and after that I will speak with the management and we will let you know whether or not I will stay. I think it is only appropriate to discuss this with the team first before anything is disclosed,” said the Italian.
“My opinion (of the team’s performances in three games here) is not a positive one. I think we left a lot to be desired in our first two matches. We picked up in the third match but were forced to play for everything. We were either in or out and had to win against the strongest team in the group and a team that has the potential to go far in this tournament.
“In general terms we all thought that we would perform a lot better, just as we showed today, especially in the first half,” he added. “Even against strong opponents I think we have been able to show that when we play with the right intensity, as we normally do, then we are able to generate opportunities to win games.”
Zaccheroni made a number of changes to the side that started against Greece, handing Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Toshihiro Aoyama his World Cup debut at the expense of Hotaru Yamaguchi.
Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, hugely disappointing in the last two games, returned to start on the left side of attack, and 2013 J. League golden boot winner Yoshito Okubo was handed the lone striker’s role.
“We had discussed pressing forward from the first half, and I think we made more of an impression than in our last two matches,” Okubo said.
Okubo, full of the kind of spirit the Samurai Blue had lacked thus far at this tournament, twice threatened as Japan went in search of an early goal, but conceded against the run of play on 17 minutes.
Yasuyuki Konno, guilty of giving the ball away cheaply on several occasions in the first half, was adjudged to have fouled Adrian Ramos and Cuadrado made no mistake from the spot, drilling down the middle as Eiji Kawashima dived to his right.
That setback failed to dampen Japan’s spirit, though, and Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Okubo all had chances before a deserved equalizer arrived with the last play of the first half.
Honda drifted in from the right and whipped in a cross from the corner of the box for Okazaki to beat Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina with a stooping header at the near post.
Japan had looked the better side in the first half, but Colombia looked dangerous every time they broke and it restored its lead 10 minutes into the second half when Martinez took a short pass from Rodriguez and smashed low shot past Kawashima into the right-hand corner.
As the game swung from end to end, Honda had a dangerous free kick punched clear and Okubo shot high and off target after good work on the right from Atsuto Uchida.
Konno and Yuto Nagatomo both put their efforts too close to captain Ospina. As Japan pressed forward, gaps inevitably opened up at the back and Martinez delivered the knockout punch on the counterattack, wrong-footing Uchida before sweeping home the third.
Rodriguez put the icing on the cake when he eased past Maya Yoshida to chip home the fourth in the last minute.
“Rodriguez was able to tap into the need that we had to attack. It was just inevitable that we would give away space and they were very good at making use of that space at the right time,” said Zaccheroni. “We didn’t have any alternatives really. We had to try and win.”
Colombia coach Jose Pekerman was naturally delighted to finish the group stage with a perfect record.
“We are very happy obviously,” said the Argentine. “Today we have won a very difficult match, but managing to win three games makes us trust ourselves even more.
“We feel confident and really happy because today we have proved once again that Colombia is a very tight team. Everybody knows how we can play because we show it on the field. It is wonderful to have a team like this.”