19:00 BST, Saturday 17th June, Mordovia Arena, (Saransk), BBC
Colombia will look for a repeat of their Group C game from Brazil four years ago when they ran out 4-1 winners on their way to the quarter-finals, ultimately having their run ended by the hosts.
Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez, then of AS Monaco, was the driving force behind that team, scoring six goals, including a wonder volley against Uruguay and a sublime dribble and chip against Japan.
The nation’s golden boy has since left Monaco, moving first to Real Madrid and then to Bayern Munich where he currently plies his trade. He will hope to create more World Cup magic in Russia.
Colombia have only played three games in 2018 and only one in the last two months. They have won just two of their last eight fixtures, although one of those was a 3-2 triumph in France.
Japan have been a little busier, having played five matches in 2018, winning one, drawing one and losing three. They concluded their preparations with a 4-2 win over Paraguay following defeats to Ukraine, Ghana and Switzerland.
Last Time Out
Egypt 0-0 Colombia [International Friendly]
Colombia’s one and only warm-up match took them to Bergamo in Italy where they faced an Egypt side without injured striker Mohamed Salah.
As expected, the African side were lacking in attack, but Colombia could not capitalise despite enjoying nearly 70% of the possession and dominating the second half.
They had 17 shots on goal, but only two found the target, leaving them frustrated. However, they extended their unbeaten run to four games having beaten China and France, and drawn with Australia earlier in the year.
Japan 4-2 Paraguay [International Friendly]
Japan played their final warm-up game just two days before the World Cup started. Having lost their previous three, they would have been relieved to come away with a 4-2 win again the South American team.
Shinji Kagawa was the standout player, scoring one and assisting two of the four goals as the Group H outsiders came from behind to claim the win.
World Cup absentees Paraguay opened the scoring around the half hour mark to lead at the break. Takashi Inui then struck twice, aided by Borussia Dortmund man Kagawa before a Federico Santander own goal made it 3-1 to Japan.
Paraguay threatened a late comeback, Richard Ortiz striking in the final minute, but Kagawa responded just a minute later to seal the win.
The scoreline flattered Japan who scored four goals despite having just five shots on target. However, that kind of efficiency could serve them well in Russia.
Captain Radamel Falcao arrives here as the club’s top scorer and will lineup alongside the familiar names such as James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. However, Rodriguez has been classed a doubt and will face a late fitness test.
Jose Pekerman has rarely strayed from the 4-2-3-1 that he introduced to great success at Brazil four years ago. However, he will tweak things slightly against tougher opposition, switching to a more defence-minded 4-5-1.
Colombia were dealt a blow when first-choice left-back Fabra was ruled out of action with an ACL injury. Veteran Farid Diaz has been drafted in as a last-minute replacement.
Mateus Uribe looks set to get the nod on the left side of midfield. The Club América midfielder won the Copa Libertadores two years back before making the switch to Mexico. His performances saw him break into the national team and he started every friendly in 2018.
Japan only appointed 63-year-old veteran coach Akira Nishino back in April so it is not entirely clear how he views his best XI.
In fact, he changed ten players between the friendlies against Switzerland and Paraguay. The success of that switch could give a glimpse of how they will line up against Colombia with a 4-2-3-1 formation expected.
He has plenty of Bundesliga-based representatives at his disposal with Yoshinori Muto, Yuya Osaka, Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Usami, Shinji Kagawa, Genki Haraguchi, and Gotoku Sakai all plying their trade in Germany.
However, Premier League star Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City remains a doubt with a calf injury.
Key Battle: James Rodriguez (Colombia) vs Shinji Kagawa (Japan)
It is no surprise that everything that Colombia do revolves around James Rodríguez. His skill and vision in the free midfield role could make all the difference for Pekerman’s side.
Having turned out for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich since the last World Cup, he arrives here stronger and more mature.
His attacking threat is backed up by a willingness to defend and retrieve possession, and he can take a game by the scruff of the neck and inspiring his teammates to overachieve. Colombia’s World Cup hopes hang on his form and fitness.
James Rodriguez 2017/18 season (all competitions):
- 13 assists
- 8 goals
- 90% passing accuracy
With 92 caps to his name, Shinji Kagawa brings a wealth of experience to this team. His European club career has taken in six seasons at Borussia Dortmund, where he won two Bundesliga titles, and three at Manchester United where he picked up one Premier League winners’ medal.
He was frozen out of Japan’s squad by former coach Vahid Halilhodzic in the buildup to the World Cup but has been brought back into the fold by new boss Akira Nishino. In Japan’s last warm-up game against Paraguay, he claimed a goal and two assists in a 4-2 win.
Shinji Kagawa’s 2017/18 season (all competitions):
- 8 goals
- 1 assist
- 88% passing accuracy
Will Rodriguez be fit in time?
The midfielder was missing from Colombia’s open training session in Kazan on Thursday sparking fears he might not be ready in time for this game.
Over 500 Colombian fans turned up to watch the session hoping to get a glimpse of the star.
His absence has been put down to muscle fatigue and club medics face a race against time to get him fit. Everything flows through Rodriguez and their entire style of play relies on the Bayern man as the playmaker. His loss would be devastating.
If he doesn’t make it, Pekerman may turn to River Plate playmaker Juan Quintero as a replacement but that could force a change of formation for the 68-year-old Argentine coach.
Will late coaching change disrupt Japan?
Japan’s World Cup preparations were dealt a massive blow when head coach Vahid Halilhodzic was fired just two months before the finals were due to start.
Despite leading them through a successful qualifying campaign, a breakdown in communication between the Bosnian coach and certain players was causing friction within the group.
Former Japanese Football Association Technical Director, Akira Nishino, was subsequently drafted in to guide the team through the tournament.
The new boss will be under great pressure to unite the players and coaching staff and get the most out of a strong group of players.
His three-game World Cup warm-up schedule began with defeats to Ghana and Switzerland, but ended on a positive note with a 4-2 victory over Paraguay.
Prediction: Colombia 2-1 Japan
Japan have yet to beat Colombia in three meetings and slumped to a 4-1 defeat in the group stages four years ago. There has been a huge upheaval in their squad with a new coach coming in resulting in a change of playing personnel and different formations.
Meanwhile, Colombia have enjoyed six years of stability under Pekerman and arrive here having lost just two of their last 13 matches in all competitions.
Even if Rodriguez does not recover in time, they should have enough quality to edge past their opponents.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group H in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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