CUIABA, Brazil — James Rodriguez delivered a brilliant cameo performance off the bench to inspire Colombia to a 4-1 victory over Japan at the World Cup on Tuesday, helping secure the top spot for his team in Group C and eliminating the Asian champions.
Introduced for the start of the second half with the score level at 1-1, Rodriguez set up two goals for Jackson Martinez before crowning the win with a sublime, individual goal.
Already assured of advancing, Colombia guaranteed first place with its third straight win and set up a second-round match against Uruguay. With nine goals in the group stage, the South Americans are proving to be the World Cup's big entertainers even without injured star Radamel Falcao.
"Colombia has the talent of the (world's) big teams right now," said Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who may have taken charge of his last match with the national team. "It will go a long way."
The introduction of Rodriguez — one of a slew of first-team regulars to be rested — tilted the game back Colombia's way after Japan finished the first half stronger, with Shinji Okazaki's injury-time goal having given Zaccheroni's side a slim chance of progressing. That canceled out a Juan Cuadrado's 17th-minute penalty for Colombia.
But with Japan leaving holes in defense as they poured forward, Rodriguez picked his opponents off at will. After turning his marker inside out and chipping the advancing goalkeeper with a deft finish in the 89th, he stood arms outstretched, taking in the acclaim of Colombia's hordes of yellow-clad fans in Cuiaba.
"He is improving so much," Martinez said. "It's incredible to see. He is playing a very important role in the World Cup."
Zaccheroni said he would contemplate in the coming days whether to end his four-year stint with Japan, which finished bottom of the group at the end of a campaign that failed to live up to expectations.
With Ivory Coast losing to Greece, a win could have put Japan through to the second round but the team faced an uphill battle from the moment Yasuyuki Konno lunged into a challenge on Adrian Ramos and conceded a penalty. Cuadrado drilled the spot kick low and hard down the middle.
The goal left Japan susceptible to the counter-attack as they pushed forward in search of two goals but there was a lack of cutting edge — Shinji Kagawa had a weak shot saved and Keisuke Honda wasted three free kicks from good positions — until Honda crossed for Okazaki to head in at the near post with what was the last touch of the half.
Rodriguez made a difference after halftime, enlivening the crowd and the team's attacking play with his turn of speed and precision passing.
Within 10 minutes, he had sent a shot spinning just wide, troubled Japan's defense with a free kick and then created Martinez's goal by running onto the ball and playing in his teammate with a cute pass. The striker took one touch and shot left-footed low into the corner.
The FC Porto striker made it 3-1 with a curling left-foot finish, this time following a reverse pass from Rodriguez, who garnished the score with his third — and best — goal of the tournament.
"I think what James has done today simply demonstrates what we expected from him," Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. "From the beginning of this World Cup, he has shown that he is very well physically, is fit and that we can expect a lot from him."
A perfect day for Colombia was completed when 43-year-old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon came on as a late substitute to become the oldest player to feature at a World Cup finals, breaking Cameroon forward Roger Milla's record.