Falcao to debut at World Cup when Colombia faces Japan
SARANSK, Russia (AP) — With Radamel Falcao finally healthy enough to play in his first World Cup, Colombia is trying to get accustomed to handling higher expectations.
Heading into its tournament opener against Japan on Tuesday, Colombia is no longer the upstart Cinderella story they became four years ago in Brazil, when they advanced to the quarterfinals despite Falcao's absence.
The current incarnation has a richer blend of talent and is widely expected to overmatch teams such as Japan, which recently changed coaches in hopes of addressing communication problems and bouts of inconsistency.
"We cannot fall in the trap of feeling overconfident in this match," Colombia midfielder Abel Aguilar said.
"We are talented and we have a great team, but we must be clever at the World Cup," Aguilar said in a FIFA interview. "We need to understand how to handle every game and have the desire to win."
The 32-year-old Falcao hasn't scored much for Colombia — at least not yet. But he had 24 goals in 35 appearances for Monaco during the last club season.
Colombia's triumphs in the past World Cup included a 4-1 victory over Japan in the final game of group play. The rematch involves many of the same players, including, perhaps, attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, if his recently strained left calf doesn't act up. But the Japanese are hoping that some different circumstances work in their favor.
"Usually the first match is hard for every team and Colombia should be no exception," Japan defender Maya Yoshida said. "I think it will be a tight game."
Japan first appeared in a World Cup in 1998 and has qualified for every one since, so they're hoping their experience helps .
"The current team has more experienced players than before," said goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who played for Japan in South Africa in 2010 and in Brazil four years ago.
Attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda, right back Atsuto Uchida, defender Yuto Nagamoto and forward Shinji Okazaki are among the Japanese playing in their third World Cup. Borussia Dortmund forward Shinji Kagawa is in his second after making his tournament debut in Brazil.
"Several of us will play in our third World Cup. Meanwhile, there are a host of young players who have made fast progress. These youngsters boast greater confidence," Kawashima said. "So with a mix of experienced veterans and talented youth players, I am confident that we are capable of making history in Russia."
HOPE FOR JAMES
Four years ago, Rodriguez rose to the global stage as the top scorer of the 2014 World Cup with six in five matches.
Shortly after the tournament, he had such a disappointing three-year spell at Real Madrid that the Spanish team loaned him to rival Bayern Munich last year.
The 26-year-old Rodriguez has performed better in Germany, but still far from his best days in 2014, when he scored a spectacular goal against Japan in the 4-1 victory.
Rodriguez is recovering from a left calf injury and Colombia made a mystery of whether he will start the game in Saransk, but he has done some work at practice and is expected to play at some point.
Akira Nishino's debut at the World Cup comes only a couple months after the 63-year-old coach who made his name steering Gamba Osaka was hired to replace Vahid Halilhodzic.
Although Halilhodzic was the coach who qualified Japan for its sixth straight World Cup, Japanese federation officials were unsatisfied by his use — or lack thereof — of some of the country's most established players.
Yoshida said he can appreciate why the late-hour coaching change gives Japan the look of a team that is not expected to go far.
"Although our expectations are not so high, the players' aspirations remain unchanged," Yoshida said. "Realistically, it would be a success for us to reach the round of 16. We will try our best to make a good World Cup for ourselves."
Less than half of the 23-man roster Colombia had in Brazil remains.
Thirteen have never played a World Cup match, including Falcao. But eight of the likely starters played in the tournament four years ago.
Colombia coach Jose Pekerman asserts that mix has his team poised to advance beyond the quarterfinals for the first time.