Dominant Rodriguez leads Colombia past Japan, top of Group C

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It was supposed to be a day of rest for James Rodríguez, but after Colombia struggled for 45 minutes against Japan, the 22-year-old was called on to preserve his team’s spot atop Group C. Over the next 45 minutes, a dominant performance that produced one goal and two assists blew open a 1-1 game, sealing Colombia’s perfect group stage with a 4-1 win over Japan.

The Colombians broke through early in the first half with a penalty converted by Juan Cuadrado, but after 45 minutes of control by Japan, the Samurai Blue crafted a stoppage time equalizer, with a Shinji Okazaki header sending the teams into halftime tied 1-1.

After being brought on at halftime, Rodríguez set up Jackson Martínez in the 55th minute for the go-ahead goal, with the Monaco star’s through ball into the right of the area in the 82nd minute allowing his teammate to double Colombia’s lead in the 82nd. Seven minutes later, Rodríguez finished from close range to close the scoring, sending the Cafeteros through with a lopsided score.

With the win, Colombia becomes the second team this tournament to complete a perfect group stage. That honor earns them a Saturday meeting with Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. Japan, after making the final 16 four years ago, leaves Brazil 2014 with one point in three games, finishing last in their group.

[ RESULTS: Greece shocks Ivory Coast | Costa Rica clinches Group D | Uruguay eliminates Italy ]
[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

Initial pressure toward the underdogs’ goal gave way to Japan control, something that generated 63 percent possession and 14-3 edge in shots by halftime. Colombia, however, was able to get on the scoresheet first thanks to a Yasuyuki Konno foul in Japan’s penalty area, allowing Cuadrado to put the group leaders in front in the 17th minute.

That edge looked set to last into intermission before Keisuke Honda, in the first minute of injury time, cut in from Japan’s right to chip a ball toward the penalty area. Curling around a defender, Okazaki headed the ball inside David Opina’s left upright, rewarding the Samurai Blue with a  1-1 scoreline at halftime.

Coming out of intermission, Colombia head coach José Pekerman, who made eight changes to his starting XI for the day’s game, brought on Rodriguez and Carlos Carbonero in an attempt to gain a handle on the game. Rodríguez’s inclusion quickly paid off. Having already taken over the game in the half’s first 10 minutes, the Colombian attacker drew three defenders to him at the top of area in the 55th minute. Flicking to his left for Martínez, the Monaco star set up his team’s go-ahead score, with his teammate finishing into the right of goal to make it 2-1.

While Japan pushed for a response, Colombia maintained their newfound threat going forward. In addition to controlling more possession, the Cafeteros had new life on the counter attack. In the 82nd minute, that threat came good when Rodríguez set up Martínez for Colombia’s insurance – a left-footed finish from the right of goal to make it 3-1.

In the 89th minute, a dominant half from Rodríguez ended with the young star’s name on the scoresheet. After sending Japanese defender Maya Yoshida spinning to ground just outside the six-yard box, Rodríguez chipped Eiji Kawashima for the game’s final goal, capping the tournaments best individual performance.

With the win, Colombia becomes the second team to finish their 2014 group stage with a 3-0-0 record. On Saturday, the Cafeteros will put that mark on the line when they face South American champions Uruguay in the tournament’s second round.

Lineups

Japan: Kawashima; Uchida, Yoshida, Konno, Nagatomo; Hasebe, Aoyama (Yaamguchi 62′); Okubo, Honda, Kagawa (Kiyotake 85′); Okazaki (Kakatani 69′)

Goals: Okazaki 45+1′

Colombia: Ospina (Mondragón 85′); Arias, Valdes, Balanta, Armero; Cuadrado (Carbonero 46′), Guarin, Mejia, Quintero (Rodríguez 46′); Ramos, Martínez

Goals: Cuadrado 17′, Martínez 55′, 82′, Rodríguez 89′

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday