CUIABA, Brazil — With or without Luis Suarez, Uruguay faces a serious challenge keeping the Colombia juggernaut at bay in the last 16 of the World Cup.
Inspired by a brilliant cameo performance off the bench from James Rodriguez, the Colombians completed a near-perfect group-stage campaign with a 4-1 win over Japan on Tuesday that eliminated the Asian champions from the tournament.
Nine goals. Three straight victories. The unearthing of one of the stars of the tournament in the brilliant Rodriguez.
It can't get much better for a team written off by many before the World Cup because of the injury sustained by star striker Radamel Falcao.
"Managing to win three games makes us trust ourselves even more and makes us feel confident," Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. "We have shown we are a very tight group. Everyone now knows that we can play."
Next up for Colombia is a South American derby against Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium. Suarez, Uruguay's top striker, may miss that match if he is punished for appearing to bite an opponent during the team's final group match against Italy earlier Tuesday. He wasn't immediately charged by FIFA.
Given Colombia's confidence right now, it won't matter if Suarez is playing or not.
Even a virtual second-string team proved too much for Japan in humid Cuiaba, although a touch of class from Rodriguez certainly helped in the second half.
Within 10 minutes of going on as a substitute, Rodriguez had set up Jackson Martinez for the goal that put Colombia 2-1 ahead.
Another pass from Rodriguez played in Martinez for Colombia's third goal in the 82nd minute before the playmaker crowned a sublime individual display by twisting and turning a tired Japanese defense and chipping in a stunning goal with a minute left.
He celebrated with his arms outstretched, taking in the acclaim of Colombia's hordes of yellow-clad fans.
"He is improving so much," Martinez said. "It's incredible to see. He is playing a very important role in the World Cup."
A nearly perfect day for Colombia was capped when 43-year-old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon went on as a late substitute to become the oldest player to feature at a World Cup finals, breaking Cameroon forward Roger Milla's record from 1994.
Colombia's first-team will be fresh and ready to go against Uruguay on Saturday. By that time, Japan will already be home — and its coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, may no longer be in charge.
After seeing his team finish bottom of Group C, Zaccheroni said his players had got their approach to the World Cup all wrong and that he would discuss his future with senior management. But he was almost welling up as he spoke of his four years as coach.
"These four years have given me a whole lot, a lot more than I have given them," the 61-year-old Italian said, before adding tellingly: "It was an incredible experience."
With just a point from its opening two games, Japan needed a victory to stand any chance of advancing but the team faced an uphill battle from the moment Yasuyuki Konno lunged into a challenge on Adrian Ramos and conceded a penalty. Juan Cuadrado drilled the spot kick low and hard down the middle in the 17th.
Going behind left the Japanese susceptible to the counter-attack, but they had created a number of half-chances by the time Keisuke Honda crossed for Shinji Okazaki to head in at the near post with the last touch of the half.
Rodriguez's arrival enlivened the crowd and the team's attacking play with his turn of speed and precision passing.
"I think what James has done today simply demonstrates what we expected from him," Pekerman said. "From the beginning of this World Cup, he has shown that he is very well physically, is fit and that we can expect a lot from him." (AP)