There is no more wide open group at the World Cup than Group C. In my projections, I give every team in the group a chance over one-in-three of progressing to the knockout rounds. Cote d’ivoire and Colombia are both stocked with players from top club sides, and Greece and Japan are no minnows. When the draw was initially made, the group seemed to offer a path to Colombia’s coronation as this World Cup’s great underdog contenders. They have struggled with injury since, and in particular will be missing talismanic striker Radamel Falcao. There is still good talent on Colombia’s side, and in a group without an international powerhouse it should be enough to see the South Americans through to the knockouts. But anything is possible.
Group C features certainly Asia’s best team and probably Africa’s best as well. I should note here that my ratings of Asian and African sides are somewhat less confident than my ratings of national teams from the other confederations. Data is scarce on the ground for matches in Asia and Africa, and so while I can produce expected goals ratings for most other big sides, for matches played in Asia and Africa I am depending mostly on goals scored and allowed (with adjustments for penalties and own goals).
Still, there is a lot to like in Cote d’Ivoire’s profile. One important note is that Les Elephants have played a tough slate of friendlies, including matches against Bosnia, Mexico, Belgium, Russia and Italy in the last few years. And further, these friendlies have been another step more difficult than the opponent list makes it seem. Cote d’Ivoire have not had another national team visit them for a friendly since Israel made the trip in 2011. All of those matches have been played either at neutral sites or more commonly in front of a hostile crowd. Once you account for home field advantage, Cote d’Ivoire’s profile takes another big step forward.
I do have expected goals data for their recent tune-up friendlies with Bosnia, Mexico and Belgium. By expected goals, Les Elephants show no signs of being overmatched playing against two above-average European qualifiers and a reasonably tough Mexican side in front of an effectively home crowd in New Jersey.
If Cote d’Ivoire make a run, the two men in the middle of things will likely be Yaya Toure and Gervinho. Toure is a known quantity, a brilliant all-around midfielder in the body of a linebacker, known for his Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl runs through opposition defenses.
Gervinho’s gif archive is more of a comedy trove, featuring terrible decisions and outrageous misses from his time at Arsenal. But after Arsenal fans rejoiced his sale in the summer, Gervinho had a fantastic season for Italian upstarts AS Roma. He had nine goals and ten assists, playing a key advanced creative role for the unexpected second-place finishers in Serie A. These goals and assists were no conversion fluke, but a function of Gervinho consistently getting into the right positions and picking out the right passes.
To defend both the powerful Toure and the mercurial Gervinho is an incredibly difficult task if both men are playing at their highest level.
“If he is playing at his level” is a phrase that has been attached to Japan’s star Shinji Kagawa for a couple years now. He has consistently disappointed at Manchester United after a big money move from Borussia Dortmund. Kagawa’s fans will tell you he has been aggressively misused, in particular by now-sacked United manager David Moyes. His annotated statistical radar from Ted Knutson at Stats Bomb tells the story well. The Japanese playmaker’s numbers have no secret hidden brilliance in them the last two seasons. He has not been productive. But if the Japanese side plays to his strengths, rather than directly against them as often seemed to be the case in Manchester, Kagawa could be a sleeper pick for a breakout star in a winnable group for Japan.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
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Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.