By Angus MacSwan
SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Colombia arrived at the World Cup lauded as one the most attractive teams, spearheaded by the influential James Rodriguez and with expectations of going far in the tournament.
It took just three minutes into Tuesday's game against underdogs Japan in Saransk for their plans to unravel.
The dismissal of Carlos Sanchez just as their opening Group H match got underway meant the Colombians simply had too high a mountain to climb.
Although they still played with great style and bravery, and even drew level after Japan after had taken the lead with the penalty from Sanchez's deliberate handball, their 10 men grew ever more weary in the second half.
Japan secured their first World Cup win against a South American side with goal from Yuya Osako in the 73rd minute.
Given the build-up, it was a sobering moment for Colombia, as well as for the thousands of fans who had turned the Mordovia Arena into a sea of yellow.
"The players made a huge effort. Think about covering the same area of the pitch with one man less," coach Jose Pekerman said.
"After that huge effort and scoring the goal, we were tired and worn down, and it was very hard for us to recover possession and Japan had its opportunities."
Colombia now face a tough task to qualify for the knockout stage, but it is not an insurmountable one. Group H was wide open even before the start, and with Senegal beating Poland 2-1 in Tuesday's other match, it may come down to goal permutations over points.
"Winners don't stop after mistakes. They raise their heads and patiently wait for the next opportunity to do things better. I believe in my team," said Rodriguez.
Colombia's talisman and the top scorer in Brazil 2014 sat on the bench for the start, having had problems with a calf muscle.
When he came on, he showed plenty of dynamism and had one terrific shot saved but by then the die was cast. He also picked up a yellow card, which might be a problem later.
NOT ONE-MAN TEAM
But Pekerman has always insisted Colombia, quarter-finalists in 2014, are not a one-man team and he can take heart from valiant performances from other players.
Captain Radamel Falcao, Colombia's all-time top scorer, made his World Cup debut having missed the previous tournament through injury. He caused Japan plenty of problems before fatigue got the better of him.
"Sad about the defeat but I believe we can turn this setback into an opportunity that will allow us to get the results we need," he wrote on Twitter.
Playmaker Juan Quintero also shone. His clever free kick, slotted under a jumping Japanese wall and leaving goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima scrambling in vain, was a delight. But he too faded as Japan stretched Colombia with waves of attacks.
"Without doubt we were expecting something different," Pekerman said. "We were hoping to start with a victory. The positive side is that the team managed to rise to the occasion, so that is a good reaction.
"We can make up for this defeat in the next two matches."
(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Christian Radnedge)