With Colombia already qualified for the round of 16 and the remaining three nations still alive, the final two matches of Group C proved that beauty and drama can often be mutually exclusive. Colombia finished off its demolition of the group with a 4-1 win over Japan, bouncing back from an equalizer in the final moment of first-half stoppage time to dominate the second half with three highly impressive goals.
In the other closing match, Greece and Ivory Coast battled as each nation hoped to reach the knockout stage for the first time in history. Defense-minded Greece needed a win to qualify and grabbed the first goal from Andreas Samaris, only for Ivory Coast to equalize through striker Wilfried Bony in the 74th minute. Ivory Coast appeared headed for second place in the group before a stoppage-time penalty, which Georgios Samaras finished to give Greece a necessary three points. The match wasn't always pretty, but it delivered all the intensity we expect from a win-or-go-home scenario.
Colombia — The group's seeded team performed beyond expectations in its first World Cup in 16 years, reaching the knockout stage for the first time since 1990 with a plus-7 goal differential. The near-constant activity and brutal efficiency on the counterattack produced several thrilling moments and made the Colombians one of the two or three most exciting sides of the group stage. A round of 16 clash against South American rivals Uruguay could pose a problem (though significantly less of one if Luis Suarez is suspended), but Colombia can set its sights on going far in this tournament.
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Greece — While there are still several spots to be decided for the round of 16, it's likely that Greece will have played the least impressive soccer of any country to reach the knockout stage. The Greeks looked poor in the opener against Colombia (though that's true of everyone so far), fought respectably hard with only 10 men to get a goalless draw against a Japan side with catastrophic finishing woes, and defeated Ivory Coast through a confluence of events that wouldn't seem repeatable. Yet Greece has proven the same survival ability for some time now, at least back to its remarkable upsets as champions of Euro 2004. Greece defends well and takes advantage of mistakes, to the point where we must admit that it makes much of its own luck. It's no fun for neutrals, but it also wouldn't be terribly surprising to see the Greeks get past Group D winners Costa Rica on Sunday.
Man of the Group: Colombia claimed the top several players of the group, including counterattacking missile Juan Cuadrado, but attacking midfielder James Rodriguez has been the breakout star of the group stage. Assuaging any fears that Colombia would lack star power with striker Radamel Falcao out with a knee injury, James — who turns 23 the day before the World Cup final — scored goals, created for his teammates, and even made a few tackles to start counterattacks. There's perhaps no greater credit to his talents than, after missing the first half of the Japan match for rest, that James entered at halftime and Colombia immediately began to dominate. Expect several huge clubs to try to buy him away from AS Monaco this summer.
Best Goal: The Samaras penalty to defeat Ivory Coast was surely the biggest goal of the group, but the most beautiful came several minutes before from Rodriguez vs. Japan. It was a fitting end to his sterling performance in the group:
Best Match: Greece eliminates Ivory Coast 2-1 with a penalty in stoppage time. This match could have been much crisper, but it also featured arguably the most dramatic comeback of a tournament marked by the sense that anything can happen. It had role reversals, controversial referee decisions, and a shocking ending. Sometimes narrative trumps aesthetics.
Deserved Better: Ivory Coast's golden generation. In what is likely its last major international tournament together, one of the most heralded collections of stars an African nation has ever seen failed to reach its goals. While this team did not enter 2014 with the same expectations as in years past, it did continue its history of high-profile disappointments and early exits. Nevertheless, Ivory Coast looked like the second-best team in the group across three games — it just didn't get the points to show for it. Legendary striker Didier Drogba, world-class midfielder Yaya Toure, and others may never suit up for the national team again, so let's appreciate them while we still can.
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