James Rodriguez
James Rodriguez and Colombia have impressed hugely so far at the 2014 World Cup. Reuters

It has been quite the return to the World Cup Stage thus far for Colombia. A long 16 years have passed since the generation of Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Freddie Rincon exited the stage, having ultimately failed to fulfill expectations following back-to-back group stage exits in 1994 and 1998. A new generation that has thus far thrilled in Brazil have already gone one better.

Colombia have impressively seen off Greece and Ivory Coast thus far and go into their final game of Group C needing just a point against Japan to secure top spot. In truth, even without a positive result to finish the group stage, it would take an unlikely turn of events to prevent them from remaining going through in first place.

It would be a hugely impressive achievement for a squad with just one player -- 43-year-old backup goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon -- possessing previous World Cup experience. It is also a team whose buildup to the tournament was dominated by talk of their star player who ultimately failed to make it on the plane. The battle for prolific striker Radamel Falcao to recover from a knee injury became a national saga of immense proportions. When his fitness fight ultimately came up short, it would have been easy for morale to deflate. Instead those remaining have shown there is far more to Colombia, especially in an attacking sense, than Falcao.

Indeed absence of the Falcao has allowed James Rodriguez a free role behind a lone strike in which he has thrived. A teammate of Falcao at Monaco, the 22-year-old has scored a goal in each game so far as well as being central to most of what Colombia has done well. He has been aided by the blistering pace and no little skill out wide of Juan Cuadrado, whose performances have made it easy to see why Barcelona are being strongly linked with a move for the sprightly Fiorentina winger.

Cuadrado is expected to be one of the players rested by Colombia’s Argentinean coach Jose Pekerman in order to prepare for their last-16 match. The players who could come into the side illustrate the strength in depth at the hands of the man who led Argentina to the quarterfinals in 2006. The prodigious Juan Quintero could well get his first start of the World Cup, having dazzled and got on the scoresheet after coming on in the second half in the 2-1 win over Ivory Coast. Carlos Bacca, who scored 14 goals in La Liga last season with Sevilla, and Jackson Martinez, scorer of 20 league goals for Porto, could also step into the side.

Japan’s Alberto Zaccheroni can only dream of such attacking strength. Japan have scored just once in their two matches so far in the World Cup, that to take the lead in their opening game against Ivory Coast before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat. Last time out they had more than 50 minutes to try and break down a Greece side with just 10 men but came up short. To much frustration, statistics showing 74 percent possession yet only four shots on target are not all that uncommon for Japan in recent years. Again it was a case of plenty of neat passing from their technically gifted midfielders, but desperately lacking a cutting edge up front.

“I knew anything could happen, because in such an important competition it is very difficult to find the right balance in order to perform well," Zaccheroni told FIFA.com. “I was hoping to find this straight away, but in fact we didn't manage to find the tactical and psychological balance we needed to impose our playing style. We went to Brazil with an idea in mind and tried to combine our quality and speed. I have to acknowledge that we haven't been able to find this balance so far.”

Japan now have no option but to find the right attacking balance. Anything less than a win will see Japan exit and continue their frustrating recent record of being unable to make it to the knockout stage in two successive World Cups. Even a victory won’t be enough if Ivory Coast beat Greece in the concurrent group game. A draw in that match will leave Japan having to beat Colombia by two clear goals.

The two teams have displayed drastically contrasting attacking play so far. While Colombia, like Japan, have plenty of technical quality, they combine it with devastating directness from the likes of Cuadrado and Victor Ibarbo. Cuadrado’s absence will take some of that away, but there is ample quality to come in. And Bacca would arguably be an upgrade on Gutierrez, who has disappointed so far. Even 10-man Greece had some openings against Japan, and it is difficult to imagine Colombia not creating chances.

Colombia’s defense is also susceptible, but Japan have not been firing on all cylinders so far. They have not been helped in that regard by Shinji Kagawa performing noticeably below his best after a disappointing season with Manchester United. It is difficult to see Zaccheroni’s squad suddenly finding the firepower to get a required win.

Colombia 2-1 Japan

Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
Colombia win: 13/10
Japan win: 2/1
Draw: 5/2

Where and when: The 2014 World Cup Group C match will kick off from the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba at 4 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.