By TIM FONTENAULT
Teams dropped out of the World Cup like flies on Wednesday, including the reigning champions. On Thursday, more teams will be fighting for their lives while others hope to clinch a spot in the knockout stage.
Playing in its first World Cup since 1998, Colombia came flying out of the gates last week against Greece. Led by a blazingly quick attack and an incredible performance on the back line by 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes, Los Cafeteros cruised to a 3-0 victory. Both Colombia and the Ivory Coast, which overcame Japan’s early lead to grab all three points, will be looking to get first dibs on a spot in the knockout rounds from Group C.
Colombia has only reached the Round of 16 once before, in 1990. The “golden generation” squad of 1994 was a disaster and 1998 proved to be more of the same. This time around, Colombia has put itself in prime position to get back to the knockout stage. They have a chance to secure that berth with a victory over the Ivory Coast.
The Ivory Coast was on its heels for most of the match against Japan. When Didier Drogba came in, the African side found new life. Everyone seemed to kick it up a gear, especially Serge Aurier, who swung in his two best crosses of the game almost immediately after Drogba’s inclusion. Both of those crosses found the back of the net through Wilfried Bony and Gervinho. This is a big moment for Les Éléphants. Playing in only its third World Cup, its third straight, the Ivory Coast could reach the Round of 16 for the first time by beating Colombia.
The high-stakes showdown kicks off ESPN’s coverage Thursday at 12 p.m. ET.
Here are some more notes ahead of today’s World Cup action:
URUGUAY vs. ENGLAND
In Group D’s only match of the day, two sides that got outclassed in their openers will try to rectify their misfortunes.
England and Uruguay are both looking to stave off elimination. Led by Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, England gave Italy a run for its money, but Andrea Pirlo and the Azzurri were too much for them. Now heading into a match with a Uruguay team missing captain Diego Lugano, England could be on the verge of breaching an opposition’s defense on more than one occasion.
Sturridge and Sterling provided the speed while Rooney’s precision passing from the left helped against Italy, but Rooney could move into a No. 10 role against Uruguay and operate more from the middle with either Danny Welbeck or Adam Lallana operating from the wing.
On the other side, Uruguay does see the return of forward Luis Suarez, which should be not only a big boost in talent but also psychologically coming off a devastating, unexpected loss. Suarez’s impact will also affect England’s defense, which surely has plenty of experience defending the 27-year-old in the Premier League. Suarez’s addition could mean that Diego Forlan will either move to the bench or to one of the wide positions in Uruguay’s 4-3-3 formation.
This important match for two former world champions gets going at 3 p.m. on ESPN.
JAPAN vs. GREECE
As is the case in the second match, the loser – if there is one – of the final match of the day will be eliminated from contention in Group C. Keisuke Honda showed the form that seemed to be lost after his January move to AC Milan, scoring a wonderful goal against the Ivory Coast, but the Asian giants could not hang on. It is do or die for Japan and Greece, unless the Ivory Coast and and Colombia draw, but a win will put the victor in a good spot entering the last game.
While Japan was always in their match, the only time Greece looked likely to score was when Theofanis Gekas put a header off the post with a wide-open goal to play with. Other than that, they were outworked and outplayed by Colombia. The attacking force of Colombia was too much for Greece’s broken defense to handle. They never looked capable of putting it down.
Honda is a playmaker, one of the best around when he is at the top of his game. The AC Milan forward likes to drift in between the defensive and midfield lines, popping up in spaces where he can receive the ball and turn towards goal.
If he can give a performance like the one he gave for most of the opening match, he could be set to put in a noteworthy showing.
Japan and Greece will end ESPN’s coverage with a 6 p.m. kickoff.
What do you think of today’s slate of matches? Will the Ivory Coast or Colombia clinch a spot in the Round of 16? Will one of the four teams fighting elimination get knocked out? Will two?
Share your thoughts below.