By TIM FONTENAULT
Colombia already had its spot in the Round of 16 locked up entering Tuesday’s World Cup action, so they made eight changes to their starting lineup. That gave Japan hope of progressing, as they hung with Colombia for the first 45 minutes. As soon as Colombia started pushing, those hopes went up in flames.
James Rodríguez came in at halftime and immediately made a difference, as the South Americans went on a scoring spree in the second half to defeat Japan 4-1. The win means that Colombia finishes Group C play without a blemish, taking all nine points.
Japan had the most to play for, and it showed early on, as they pushed for the opening goal. Led by Keisuke Honda, the Japanese kept Colombia on the back foot.
However, Yasuyuki Konno made a crucial mistake in the 16th minute, sticking out his leg when he had no chance to get the ball. Konno took down Adrián Ramos, conceding a penalty that Juan Cuadrado fired past Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
Japan continued to have the better of the chances, most of them through Honda’s free kick opportunities. On the stroke of halftime, Honda set up the tying goal, putting a cross to Shinji Okazaki, who headed in the equalizer and headed straight to the locker room.
Rodríguez replaced Cuadrado at halftime, which was Colombia’s way of signing Japan’s death certificate. Immediately, Rodríguez changed the match, dancing his way past any Japanese defender that stepped to him, unless he was passing the ball into a goal-scoring position for a teammate, like he did for Jackson Martínez in the 55th minute. All Martinez had to do was take a step to the left and fire a left-footed shot past Kawashima into the bottom-right corner.
In the 82nd minute, Rodríguez put a through ball into the box, right into the path of Martínez. The only touch Martínez needed before putting a curling, left-footed shot past Kawashima was a beautiful tap of the ball from his right foot to his left, a move that nearly put Atsuto Uchida on the ground.
Rodríguez notched a goal of his own in the 89th minute. Ramos played him through down the left side. All Rodríguez had to do was cross up Maya Yoshida twice and blast the ball past Kawashima.
As the winner of Group C, Colombia advances to face Group D runner-up Uruguay. As for the runner-up in Group C, Japan’s loss means that Greece, which beat the Ivory Coast at the death on Tuesday, will play Group D winner Costa Rica.