By ROSELYN B. MONROYO
Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) national team veteran Salomon Kalou said Group C is an open and even group.
It is, as the Les Éléphants are joined by Colombia, Greece, and Japan.
There are three main factors that make the battle for the Top 2 spots in this group an open race.
First are the coaches. All four teams have new coaches coming into next month’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Greece is managed by Fernando Santos, who took over from Otto Rehhagel in 2010. Also four years ago, Japan tapped Alberto Zaccheroni to replace Takeshi Okada, while Sabri Lamouchi and Jose Pekerman assumed coaching position for Côte d’Ivoire and Colombia, respectively, in 2012. Lamouchi came in for Leonel Alvarez, while Pekerman replaced Francois Zahoui.
Second is their pretty similar World Cup records. Both Columbia and Japan have Round of 16 as their best finish so far in the World Cup with the latter doing so in 2002 and 2010 and the former in 1990. Greece and Côte d’Ivoire have never survived the group stage. All four teams have no more than five World Cup appearances to their credit. Japan and Columbia are on their fifth stints, while this year will just be the third for both Greece and Côte d’Ivoire.
Third, is the contrasting style of plays as these four squads came from different confederations. Côte d’Ivoire is the top-ranked team from Africa (No. 21) and is known for its power and pace. Japan, which is second in Asia at No. 47 (behind the No. 37 Iran) and just won the Asian Cup (against Australia), is a disciplined and technically sound team. Columbia, which is representing the South American zone and the second highest-ranked in its region (No. 5), has become an offense-minded squad with the arrival of of Pekerman. Tenth-ranked Greece, which is among the 13 qualifiers from the European zone (the region that has the most entries to next month’s competition), is a defense-oriented squad and this strategy helped the team pull off the biggest upset in the Euro 2012, as the Greeks beat the Russians, 1-0.
As for their respective rosters, three teams are bringing in old reliables. Côte d’Ivoire has 2010 World Cup veterans Droga and Kalou, while midfielders Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa are back for Japan, and Greece is fielding captain Giorgos Karagounis and forward Konstantinos Mitroglou, anew. Colombia missed the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and is bringing up a new generation of players led by Falcao, who scored nine goals in 13 games in the qualifier.