It would be embarrassing not to admit the only significant narrative surrounding Colombia’s 2014 World Cup journey has been their preoccupation with the fitness of Radamel Falcao. The nation has been praying for him to recover from the injury he sustained roughly 15 minutes after scoring against Monts d’Or Azergues in the Coupe de France for AS Monaco on the 22nd of January, 2014. Thankfully, he has been named in Colombia’s provisional 30-man squad, with Pékerman stating he will wait until ‘the last minute’ to decide on whether he will make the final squad of 23 players.
The fact that Falcao’s anterior cruciate ligament tear is the only real setback Colombia have suffered so far in the tournament is testament to their excellent qualification campaign, in which they came 2nd in the CONMEBOL league table, albeit without Brazil to contend with, having conceded the fewest goals.
Colombia’s original choice of 30 men had no real surprises. For the purists of domestic football, perhaps the only issue of contention is that some Colombian based players from the 2014 Colombian Apertura Winners, and current best side in the country, Atlético Nacional, have failed to make the squad. Players like Alejandro Bernal, Oscar Murillo and Sherman Cárdenas have been left out, but would have been lucky to make the provisional team, given manager Pékerman’s alternatives. Players like Dayro Moreno, on loan at Millonarios from Club Tijuana, Carlos Carbonero of River Plate, Dorlan Pabón, on loan at São Paulo from Valencia CF, and Carlos Darwin Quintero of Santos Lugana were also unlucky not to be involved at least in the original 30.
But, the squad has already been reduced to 27. The languid number 10 Macnelly Torres will not make the final 23, which is an odd decision, with Elkin Soto and Aquivaldo Mosquera also being cut from the original 30, perhaps more understandably. 4 more withdrawals are needed as the manager chops down the side, and this will depend on the performances and fitness of the remaining squad members over the coming weeks.
Tactically, Colombia’s personnel seem to favour a back three, given the lack of pace and mobility of their aging centre-backs, and the lung capacity and work rate of their full-backs on either side. José Pékerman looks likely to field just two centre-backs in his starting eleven though. They will be made up of captain Mario Yepes (the 38-year-old), who will definitively start, partnering either Luis Perea (the 35-year-old) or AC Milan’s Cristián Zapata (who’s 27). The entire defensive five, including the goalkeeper, will likely be retained from the nations last qualification game against Paraguay when they play Greece in Belo Horizonte on the third day of the 2014 World Cup. The underrated David Ospina will be in goal, and Santiago Arias and Pablo Armero the right and left-backs respectively.
The Colombian midfield is where things start to get mouth-watering, and although a likely pair of Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sánchez doesn’t do too much to get creative juices flowing, these two allow wingers, like the wonderful Juan Cuadrado (who’s just a terrific player) and the superb James Rodríguez, to flourish on either side of the pitch. Whilst Aguilar looks set to start, Sánchez could lose his place to Fredy Guarín depending on the opposition, but the Internazionale midfielder may expose Colombia in central midfield as his desire to play in England informs his attacking indiscipline. For Colombia, the pairing of Sánchez and Aguilar is similar to how Uruguay utilised Arévalo Ríos and Diego Pérez in the 2010 World Cup in the centre of midfield as steady, hard-working, unspectacular, defensively-minded players with good, simple passing. Carlos Sánchez’s form will need to improve though, and fast.
It does not look likely that Falcao will take to the field, but it might not matter. Whilst the provisional squad is still being whittled down, Colombia’s attacking force is so strong that they will be able to cope without the striker. Whilst none of the other attacking players in Colombia’s team are quite in Falcao’s category, they have two strong replacements who have had near perfect seasons with their respective clubs. José Pékerman just has to decide who to pair upfront with Teófilo Gutiérrez, who had a good qualification campaign and worked well playing off the aforementioned Falcao, and appears set to continue in the role linking midfield with attack. Adrián Ramos and Carlos Bacca have earned a transfer to Borussia Dortmund, in part to replace Lewandowski, and won the UEFA Europe League respectively, and their individual output and goal returns have surely surpassed expectations this season. Either of the two could replace Falcao in the starting line-up, with Jackson Martínez waiting to step in too – perhaps the more likely choice. Martínez, who had an extraordinary 2012-2013 season, has had less luck this year with FC Porto, but still remains an excellent player. In terms of the other strikers, Luis Muriel has had a disappointing campaign with Udinese after his breakthrough 2012-2013 season, and Cagliari’s precocious Víctor Ibarbo could well be left out of the final squad.
Pre-tournament friendlies against Senegal and Jordan before the World Cup will more than likely be used to rotate and explore options within the front 6, rather than the steady back 5.
José Pékerman introduced Teófilo Gutiérrez to help Falcao produce more goals during qualifying, because of his resistance to becoming involved with build-up play. Gutiérrez’s inclusion meant sacrificing a midfield player however; something Pékerman was reluctant to do. It is possible that Falcao’s absence will encourage Pékerman to restore an additional midfielder, although given Macnelly Torres has been dropped from the team, this would be difficult with their personnel.
With this in mind, Colombia seem certain to play with a 4-2-2-2 formation, although it is guaranteed that they will change shape during their games at this summer’s tournament, as the team remains fairly flexible. José Pékerman is something of a tinkerman, so expect subtle alterations before and during games, depending on the opposition.
Upfront, Gutiérrez will drop off his chosen strike-partner to create a 4-2-2-1-1 in attacking phases, and the clever movement from their midfield and attack creates plenty of good chances for the team. It has been said that Colombia lack enough creativity in the final 30-yards of the pitch to make them a truly great side, but with James and Cuadrado in the side it would not be wise to underestimate them.
Their blend of fast, vertical through-balls with early, accurate crossing may give way to a more possession-based game due to the absence of their star man. They can play either system well. Jackson Martínez could provide a seamless transition into a post-Falcao line-up though, with very similar attributes to the stricken AS Monaco man.
Colombia will not win the World Cup, but they seem to have blindsided the footballing community with a squad full of talent, and certainly able enough to cause problems for some of the outside favourites this year.
James Rodriguez | Without question, without Falcao, the team’s star man. The winger plays with Radamel at AS Monaco – a move engineered by super-agent Jorge Mendes. James is fast, talented, and direct, and the key to Colombia’s creativity and goal threat. He is a superb player, and certainly capable of earning a move to a big European side after this summer’s tournament.
Abel Aguilar | As stated, Aguilar is important to the side by covering full-backs, co-ordinating the midfield, and allowing more creative players to shine.
Juan Cuadrado | Another excellent season at Fiorentina for Cuadrado has put him in the shop window. Like James, Cuadrado is one good international tournament away from becoming a superstar. Expect big things from this player, who will find the lack of tactical discipline or raw ability of his markers in the group stages of the World Cup a huge benefit to firing him into a larger European club like his fellow winger on the other side.
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYERS
Eder Alvarez Balanta | Perhaps not ready to start at the 2014 World Cup, but the future of Colombian football without question. Currently, Eder has one cap to his name, with his age and impressive displays this season at River Plate, Balanta already has a cult following and is sure to be a future captain and leader in the Colombian national side in the near future, given the age of the players in his way. Balanta featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014, coming in at #7 in our list of defenders. You can read a detailed Scout Report on Eder Alvarez Balanta here.
Juan Fernando Quintero | Along with Balanta, Quintero ensures Colombia’s future. He is a talented midfielder who plays for FC Porto. He wasn’t trusted by Paulo Fonseca during the 2013/2014 campaign, but Quintero will hope that displays, most likely from the bench, at this World Cup, will make him a starter in Portugal next season, pushing his inevitable journey to a top European team ever closer. Quinteri featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014, coming in at #4 in our list of defenders.