Colombia kick off their World Cup 2018 campaign against Japan in Saransk on Tuesday.
The Group H clash will take place at the Mordovia Arena and while it is expected to feature the 2014 edition’s Golden Ball winner, recent reports suggest otherwise.
Here’s a look at some of the key talking points ahead of the encounter.
THE JAMES FACTOR
Four years ago, James Rodriguez took the tournament in Brazil by storm, secured a high-profile move to Real Madrid in the process and never looked back. His meteoric rise on after a stunning performance at the World Cup was the stuff of dreams. The question is whether he can emulate that display this time around.
James operates in the No10 position ahead of a double pivot in midfield. While he’s been more involved in the build-up play at Bayern Munich this season, he plays closer to the striker for Colombia and only drops deep on the ball occasionally to spray passes wide towards one of the wingers.
Boasting an eye for goal and a lethal left foot, James top scored for Los Cafeteros with six goals in qualifying. Following a fine season with Bayern during which he scored seven goals and provided 11 assists in 23 Bundesliga appearances, the attacking midfielder comes into the tournament with plenty of confidence.
That’s precisely why reports of his fitness issues ahead of Colombia’s opener has generated some of concern. Speaking on reports that the midfielder has suffered a calf injury in training, Japanese full-back Yuto Nagatomo said: “Nothing changes. Whether (Rodriguez) plays or not, no matter who lines up for our opponents, the way we approach the game doesn’t change.”
Colombia do alter their tactics in James’ absence though, deviating from their preferred 4-2-3-1 to adopt a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 instead. Either Carlos Bacca will join Radamel Falcao up front (or vice-versa) or the promising Jefferson Lerma replaces James with a slight tweak to the formation.
SUN SETTING ON FAMILIAR FACES
Japan have more less been the best team in Asia over the last decade but for all their continental exploits, have never made it past the Round of 16 stage at the World Cup.
The Samurai Blue retain a familiar core of reputed talents who have impressed on the European circuit with various clubs.
Keisuke Honda, Eiji Kawashima, Takashi Inui, Shinji Kagawa, Maya Yoshida, Shinji Okazaki and Nagamuto are among their more high-profile players. Apart from Kagawa and Yoshida (both 29) the rest of them have all crossed the 30-mark. For many of them, this will be their last opportunity to leave a mark on the world stage.
That group of players did help secure four Asian Cup titles over the years but are yet to push the envelope on a global level. The experience and stability they provide though will be crucial as Japan arrived in Russia with a new coach in Akira Nishino following the sacking of Vahid Halilhodzic in April.
Nishino has only been in charge for three games but has reinstated the accomplished Kagawa as a key player in the side after the Borussia Dortmund playmaker was out of favour with his predecessor.
In response, the former Manchester United man scored a goal and set up two others to bring Japan’s five-match winless streak to an end with a 4-2 win over Paraguay in their final warm-up game.
Colombia’s first-choice left-back Frank Fabra suffered an anterior cruciate ligament rupture just 10 days before the start of their World Cup opener. With the Boca Juniors defender ruled out of the tournament, Jose Peckerman called up 34-year-old Farid Diaz in his stead.
However, the man likely to assume the starting role on the left side of defence is Johan Mojica. The 25-year-old Girona player who can operate at left-back or even further up the pitch is not lacking in pace. In fact, he has claimed he can run 100m in under 11 seconds and previously considered a career as a sprinter.
He has been in good form in La Liga and is a handful in attack but he will come up against Honda who can be a very tricky customer. The Japanese veteran excels with his clever movement while his tendency to drift infield could see Mojica faced with a host of problems.
Emil Forsberg has been catching the eye of some of Europe’s leading clubs while starring for RB Leipzig, and Monday saw him get a chance to shine on the world’s biggest stage.
But on his World Cup debut, Forsberg showed off other aspects of his game, with his work ethic and effort helping Sweden to a 1-0 win.
Here’s a closer look at his performance.
Goals – 0
Assists – 0
Shots – 4
Shots on target – 0
Key passes – 0
Passing accuracy – 87%
Dribbles – 1
Touches – 54
Forsberg is capable of lighting up games on his best days. However, Monday was one of those games where, instead of grabbing headlines with starring moments, it was his graft that helped his team to victory.
He fell short in terms of producing the telling passes and fluffed his lines with presentable scoring opportunities – and on another day that profligacy could cost Sweden. But tireless effort when not at your best is a valuable commodity, and that’s exactly what Forsberg provided.
His passing was neat and composed as Sweden saw the majority of possession. He was quick to find his team-mates when the defensive attention was too much to shrug off, showcasing a valuable level of maturity and decision-making.
Forsberg was also a key part of Sweden’s rearguard, helping out in defence whenever required. It was a level of effort that would have been much appreciated by his team-mates, as together they repelled South Korea’s more threatening attacks.
Forsberg fell short of providing the incision he is capable of, failing to pull off the sort of pass that leads to a gilt-edged chance for a teammate. Indeed, statistically speaking, he created zero chances on Monday, an unusual occurrence from the player who is looked upon as Sweden’s chief creative force.
He also seemingly forgot his shooting boots, as he was unable to test the South Korea keeper despite being given a couple of decent, presentable chances to do so.
49th minute SHOT: Sweden broke at pace from a quickly-taken free-kick, and the ball made its way to Forsberg on the edge of the box. His shot was high and wide when he should have done better.
Forsberg will be the first to admit that he’s capable of delivering more than he did on Monday. His creative threat was nowhere near its most potent, and Sweden will require a better performance on that front in other games.
But with a work ethic like his, Forsberg showed that there’s more than one way to have an impact. His graft and effort were valuable aspects of a hard-fought and well-deserved Sweden win.
RATING – 6/10
Cisse captained that team as it went on a memorable run to the quarter-finals, beating defending champions France on the way.
The 42-year-old is preparing his side to take on Poland in Moscow on Tuesday but dismissed comparisons between the two vintages of Senegalese talent, saying they have never had a player like Mane before.
“Sadio Mane is a unique player and he cannot be compared to any other Senegal player, even the major ones we’ve had in the past,” said Cisse, who spent four seasons in the Premier League with Birmingham and Portsmouth.
“And despite everything that has happened for him over the last two years, he hasn’t changed – he’s just as humble as he was when I first met him at the 2012 Olympics.
“Senegal isn’t only Sadio Mane, though, he has a good team built around him and I think it should be a little plus for him that we’re all behind him.”
When asked by reporters if the 26-year-old winger had a chance to become one of the world’s best players during this tournament, Cisse said: “He’s already one of the best – you can’t say he’s not.
“He plays for one of the most iconic clubs, one of the best in Europe, and he’s top-notch for them.
“He’s absolutely unique because he is so unpredictable, that’s what makes him great – he can make the difference with a pass or shot. He’s already one of the best.”
Mane was named Liverpool’s player of the season in 2017 after his first year with the club and enjoyed another hugely successful campaign this season, which he capped by becoming the first African player to score in the Champions League final.
His team were on the losing side that day, but Cisse is only thinking positive thoughts ahead of the match against Poland.
“Everyone knows the first game is important – it’s not vital or decisive, though – but we are ready,” said Cisse.
“We know Poland have great individuals but they have some defensive weaknesses and we are one of Africa’s best teams and have lots of assets and no weak parts to our game.”
Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski is Poland’s main man but Cisse said Senegal had no “particular plan to stop him, just a collective plan to beat Poland”.
He also said he was confident the continent would one day fulfil Pele’s prediction of an African World Cup winner.
“I’m sure Senegal, Nigeria or another team will be able to win the World Cup just like Brazil and Germany – we have no complexes about this,” he said.
“You can see African players with all the best teams in Europe – we just need more African coaches.”
Senegal are captained by West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate and he revealed that Cisse has been working the team “very, very hard” over the last three weeks but they are now ready to “enjoy the World Cup and give this joy to the Senegalese people”.