COLOMBIA kicked off their World Cup campaign with a comfortable 3-0 win over Greece in Belo Horizonte.
SCORERS: Colombia; Armero 5, Gutiérrez 58, Rodriguez 90
Who needs Rademal Falcao? Colombia have provided some memorable moments in the past but not many greeted with more rapturous applause than this as they swept aside an ageing Greek team with another glorious performance in this glorious of World Cups.
Just like in Sao Paolo, where Brazil got us off to a somewhat controversial start, Belo Horizonte’s magnificent state-of-the-art stadium was a sea of yellow, but this was Colombian yellow and how they milked the celebrations.
Hardly a Greek fan was in sight in what was virtually a home game for the Colombians who had poured into Brazil’s third largest city in their thousands for perhaps the most open group of all, hoping to carry on where they had left off in qualifying when they finished second behind Argentina with a great final rally.
The absence of the much-vaunted Falcao because of cruciate ligament damage robbed the South Americans of one of the deadliest strikers in world football and they were also without three other key injured players. Indeed, coach Jose Pekerman described it as his “saddest day’’ since taking charge of “Los Cafeteros’’ when he was forced to leave out the man known as El Tigre.
Greece, too, suffered a setback when Kostas Mitroglou, whose £11 million move to Fulham couldn’t save the Cottagers from relegation, could only make the bench. Mitroglu has played precious little football because of knee problems but his three goals in Greece’s 4-2 aggregate play-off win over Romania showed his value to his country.
Portuguese coach Fernando Santos had told anyone who would listen that Mitroglu had done enough in training to prove his fitness.
During Greece’s final training session, Mitroglu was inadvertently struck in the face by a team-mate though that had nothing to do with Santos deciding not to risk him from the start.
In the end, it was Pekerman’s team who cemented their status as Group C favourites with another delicious exhibition of South American flair that will be hard to contain if they carry on in this vein.
Colombia’s first World Cup match in the finals since 1998 offered a distinct clash of styles. While the Greeks are known for their defensive nous and conceded only four goals in qualifying, Los Cafeteros, who scored 27 of their own, only know how to play one way.
It made for an intriguing lunchtime encounter. Even without Falcao – who nevertheless made his presense felt in spirit by embracing each and every one of his team-mates before they headed out on to the pitch – Colombia were still brimming with talent such as Falcao’s Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez – 11 goals and top of the Ligue 1 chart for assists – and their deafening fans, bathed in sunshine, belted out the national anthem.
Greece had won just one out of six games in two previous World Cup finals appearances. That was against Nigeria four years ago but, as we all know, they are nothing if not organised opponents as Otto Rehhagel’s side proved a decade ago by becoming champions of Europe.
But they were rocked back on their heels after just five minutes when Pablo Armero struck low and hard and the ball deflected off a Greek defender into the net, sparking bedlam on the pitch and in the stands.
With their gameplan gone, the Greeks – who had failed to score in all but one of their previous World Cup games – tried to rally but their movement was one-paced.
Their main threat came from set-pieces and Vasileios Torosidis’ header from Jose Chlevas’ free kick was inches away from bringing them level.
With their contain-and-frustrate game plan shot to pieces, the Greeks tried to rally but their attacks were too slow to worry 38-year-old Colombian skipper Mario Yepes and his fellow defenders. Yet as the first half drew to a close, so they started to ask questions, Panagiotis Kone’s fierce drive being spectacularly punched away by David Ospina.
Shortly after the break, however, they failed to clear a corner and Teofilo Gutierrez, who plays his club football with River Plate in Argentina, lashed home from close range.
What a chance Greece had of getting back in the game. Vasilis Torosidis volleyed into the area but from six yards, Theofanis Gekas somehow saw his header bounce off the underside of the bar before the ball was cleared off the line for the miss of the tournament so far. That was effectively Greece’s last chance and barring an unlikely comeback they will surely be on their way home at the end of the group stage.
Not so Colombia. The “Oles” resounded around the stadium and just to make their day, James Rodriguez drove in a sublime third in stoppage time. Many predicted that Colombia might prove dark horses for the tourmament . Long way to go but how they made up for lost time.