MIDFIELDER James Rodriguez enhanced his growing reputation with an influential display as a second-half substitute as Colombia set up a mouthwatering clash with fellow South Americans Uruguay after victory over Japan in Cuiaba guaranteed them top spot in Group C.
The Monaco playmaker was initially rested with qualification assured but his introduction at half-time added a touch of class as his side raced clear after the break.
Rodriguez and another of their key performers in Brazil Juan Cuadrado played integral parts with the latter converting an early penalty before the former’s immediate impact saw him set up two goals for Jackson Martinez before scoring one himself.
Japan’s hopes of taking second place and sneaking into the last 16 were raised briefly when Shinji Okazaki equalised with the final touch of the first half but they lacked the threat of their opponents in the final third and it ultimately cost them.
They needed a win to stand a chance of progressing and so understandably began positively but found themselves behind after 17 minutes.
Martinez’s through-ball sent Adrian Ramos running into the penalty area and Yasuyuki Konno’s decision to attempt to challenge a player heading away from goal proved to be a disastrous one as he failed to get anywhere near the ball.
Cuadrado, the 26-year-old Fiorentina winger, smashed home the penalty, to seemingly put his side in control.
But Japan bounced back with Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who returned after being dropped for the goalless draw against Greece, forcing David Ospina into a low save after cutting back onto his right foot and Keisuke Honda whipped a left-footed free-kick just past the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
Just before half-time Porto striker Martinez had a chance to make things comfortable but bundled a ball from Ramos wide and that proved costly as with the final touch of the half Okazaki headed in at the near post from Honda’s cross.
Cuadrado was replaced by Colombia’s other stand-out performer Rodriguez for the start of the second half and his early free-kick was ballooned over by fellow half-time substitute Carlos Carbonero.
Rodriguez’s next contribution was more telling, however, as his neat control and lay-off inside the penalty area took two Japan defenders out of the game to open the way for Martinez to fire past Eiji Kawashima.
Eder Balanta, one of eight changes with Colombia already guaranteed a place in the knockout stage, was lucky to escape punishment after his flailing arm into the face of Okazaki drew blood while Yoshito Okubo blazing over from eight yards merely drew anger and frustration from team-mates and fans alike.
Japan were put out of their misery eight minutes from time when Rodriguez again provided the assist with a brilliant through-ball on a swift counter-attack for Martinez’s second.
With the game safe Colombia coach Jose Pekerman bowed to sentimentality and brought on 43-year-old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon for his first appearance in a competitive international for nine years to beat the record of Cameroon’s Roger Milla for being the oldest player in the history of the World Cup.
Rodriguez capped a brilliant 45-minute cameo with a cute finish in added time.