By Patrick Johnston
BRASILIA, June 18 (Reuters) - With fears about World Cup nerves allayed and buoyed by a sizeable travelling support, a confident Colombia were facing a struggle to play down expectations they could seal a rare place in the knockout stages.
The South Americans marked their return to the World Cup stage after a 16-year absence in sparkling fashion on Saturday, swatting aside former European champions Greece 3-0 in their opening Group C match.
They face Ivory Coast in Brasilia on Thursday knowing victory would put them on the verge of booking a berth in the knockout stages for only the second time in their history and first since their golden generation made the last 16 in 1990.
The experienced Pekerman, though, was merely happy his young charges had not cracked under the weight of expectation on the first appearance at the finals for his entire squad.
"Obviously we are faced with a very difficult match with an experienced opponent in the Ivory Coast and the sensation is we have passed a good examination on our debut," the coach told reporters.
"With all that it entails, the pressure that comes before a performance after a long period of time away and with so many World Cup debutants."
Even without their leading goalscorer Radamel Falcao, who suffered a knee injury playing for Monaco in January, Colombia were highly fancied to win Group C, which also features Asian champions Japan.
The guarded Pekerman, though, said facing teams from different continents was a difficult ask for his inexperienced team, who thrived against their regional opponents to finish second behind Argentina in qualifying.
"Our message was always that the South American elimination was one thing and the World Cup another," said the 64-year-old, who took charge after Leonel Alvarez was sacked for taking only four points from their first three qualifying matches.
"We know each other better in South America, we play each other regularly and the World Cup teams are different and we face different challenges."
Helping them overcome those challenges is a sea of yellow supporters who have made the journey south to support their team.
Pekerman, who played half his career in Colombia and was offered nationality by president Juan Manuel Santos after he booked a place in Brazil, said seeing so many supporters at their opening match in Belo Horizonte had made them feel they were back in Bogota.
"It makes us very happy and great motivation, great support, people waited for this moment for a long time and they have always had a good response from the team," he said.
"This unites and makes us realise we have to do our best for Colombia and the team and all those people close to us make us stronger, motivate us and make us feel like we are at home." (Additional reporting by Brian Homewood. Editing by Nigel Hunt)
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