By Mike Collett
SAO PAULO, June 9 (Reuters) - Even without prolific striker Radamel Falcao, Colombia start as favourites to qualify from World Cup Group C after finishing second in the South American qualifiers and taking decent results against Belgium and the Netherlands in friendlies.
A successful opening match against Greece in Belo Horizonte on Saturday, hours before Ivory Coast meet Japan in Recife, should put Jose Pekerman's side on the way to what seems a probable last 16 finish.
Asian champions Japan, coached by Italian Alberto Zaccheroni, also beat Belgium and drew with the Netherlands in pre-World Cup friendlies and gained valuable experience of conditions in Brazil at last year's Confederations Cup.
But although they produced some excellent football at times and played their part in a 4-3 defeat to Italy in the match of the tournament, they did lose all three games.
Zaccheroni said at the time that the important thing was to gain as much experience as possible for what would be their fifth successive appearance and in the event Japan were the first team to qualify for the World Cup.
If their defence can stop leaking goals, they have a reasonable chance of finishing in the top two although Ivory Coast are probably favourites to edge them out.
Japan's opening match against the Africans will certainly be a clash of footballing cultures.
The Ivorians come to the finals knowing this is the last chance for two of Africa's greatest players to make a real impact in what will be their last World Cup.
Didier Drogba, who is now 36 but still a potent force with Galatasaray in Turkey, and 31-year-old Yaya Toure, who has just led Manchester City to the Premier League title, are the talismanic figures.
The quartet is completed by Greece who proved when they won the European title in 2004, after starting that competition as 100-1 outsiders, that anything is possible.
But despite being ranked in FIFA's top 16 for the last five years, the Greeks have never reached the knockout rounds in a World Cup.
In fact, they have the least impressive World Cup credentials of any of the quartet and have played in only two finals - in the United States in 1994 and South Africa four years ago and winning only one of their six matches.
Colombia return to the finals after a 16 year gap since their last appearance in France'98 and under the experienced Pekerman, who took Argentina to the quarter-finals in 2006.
They look a fine side and would have been even better if Falcao had been fit.
He suffered a serious knee injury playing for AS Monaco in a French league match in January but, despite his failure to recover, Colombia have some other decent attacking options in Seville's Carlos Bacca and Porto striker Jackson Martinez.
One of them is likely to play alongside Teofilo Gutierrez up front and if they beat Greece as expected and get at least a draw against Ivory Coast in Brasilia on June 19, Colombia should seal their place in the last 16 against Japan in Cuiaba five days later.
One of the most influential players in this section is likely to be Toure, whose brother Kolo is also in Ivory Coast's 23 despite suffering a bout of malaria before the finals.
Yaya was upset at the end of the season oddly saying he was not respected enough by his club who did not even send him a birthday cake on his birthday.
But if he helps his country into the last 16, probably alongside Colombia, Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi might deliver one to him personally -- with icing on it. (Reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Alan Baldwin)