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Colombia thrash Greece in joyous World Cup return

BELO HORIZONTE Brazil (Reuters) - Colombia celebrated their first World Cup appearance since 1998 by sweeping aside Greece 3-0 on Saturday with a free-flowing display that showed their abundance of attacking talent even without top striker Radamel Falcao.

The result at the Estadio Mineirao stadium confirmed the South Americans' pre-tournament status as Group C favorites, though Ivory Coast and Japan are likely to prove trickier rivals.

In another high-tempo match, pacy Colombia attacked from the start as if determined to prove they can cope without Falcao, whose ligament injury put a dampener on their buildup.

They were rewarded early on when marauding left back Pablo Armero scored with a deflected shot in the fifth minute, rocking the Greeks whose gameplan depends on defensive stability.

Striker Teofilo Gutierrez, whom Colombians expect to fill the hole left by Falcao, extended their lead when he stabbed home a 58th minute corner.

Midfielder James Rodriguez sealed the win, and his man-of-the-match performance, with a third goal in stoppage time.

"It's a good start," said Colombia's Argentine coach Jose Pekerman, whose last participation in a World Cup was when he led Argentina to Germany in 2006.

"We showed we're here to have a good World Cup. But nothing's won, it was the first game."

The match was by no means one-sided though. Forced to attack after conceding, Greece had plenty of chances, showing they will be no pushover for their other group rivals.

Vassilis Torosidis headed just past the post, Panagiotis Kone saw a shot well saved and Giorgos Samaras struck just wide.

Their best opportunity fell to veteran striker Fanis Gekas who hit the bar with a header after 63 minutes when it looked easier to score, effectively scuppering any chance of a comeback.

"We had our chances but just could not score. We should have done better in the finishing," said goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis.

"I don't think we were worth a 3-0 defeat. But unfortunately that's football. There are three games, we only lost one. It's a big success to be here, but we have to win too."

DANCING FOR JOY

The result pumped up an already pulsating atmosphere among the majority Colombian crowd, a sea of yellow in the bright sunlight of the lunchtime kickoff.

They were thrilled at seeing their team back at football's top table after being shut out since their great sides of the 1990s featuring flamboyant characters like goalkeeper Rene Higuita and blond-locked Carlos Valderrama.

The joy was in evidence after Colombia's first goal, when the players danced together in front of their bench in probably the most colorful celebration so far of the Brazil World Cup.

Defeat continued Greece's dismal record of never keeping a clean sheet at a World Cup finals.

They have never gone beyond the group stage either, but will be encouraged after creating a string of chances and will hope their finishing improves against the Ivory Coast and Japan, who meet later on Saturday.

Defender Armero's early goal came after sustained pressure down the right wing, where the Colombians were tormenting Greek left back Jose Holebas, though the ball took a lucky deflection before squeezing past keeper Orestis Karnezis.

Three Colombian players looked offside but were deemed not to be interfering with play and there were no protests from Greece.

"It was an own goal, it didn't look dangerous," said Greece coach Fernando Santos, lamenting their poor defending.

The powerful Gutierrez then scored an easy goal from close range on the hour after a corner was flicked on.

Finally, Rodriguez, who was lively throughout the match with three decent shots at goal, struck low in stoppage time to send the Colombian fans delirious. "It's a dream come true. I really wanted a goal. We hope to be able to go far," he said.

Greece forward Kostas Mitroglou, lacking match fitness after a miserable time in the English Premier League with now relegated Fulham, came off the bench in the second half but was unable to provide a missing spark for his side.

(Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Nigel Hunt and Ken Ferris)

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