Why Colombia Could Be the Big Surprise at World Cup 2014 in Brazil
Six wins, one draw, one defeat. Since arriving as manager of the Colombian national team at the start of the year, Jose Pekerman's record could hardly be better, with his team riding high in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
After several years of disappointment, Colombia have finally pieced together a team that is capable of upholding the country's proud footballing traditions, combining physicality with an impressive array of talent.
Pekerman's side are finally beginning to realise their undoubted potential, and following their performances in World Cup qualifying, others are starting to pay attention to the rising force on the continent—a country with the resources and population to become a real force in world football.
So, what makes this Colombia side a potential surprise package at the World Cup?
An Astute Manager: Jose Pekerman
Jose Pekerman's credentials in management are well-known. As manager of Argentina's Under-20 side, he oversaw three FIFA Under-20 World Cup triumphs in the space of six years, helping to bring the likes of Juan Pablo Sorín, Juan Román Riquelme and Pablo Aimar through to senior level.
His time as manager of the senior Argentina National Team is also easily forgotten by some, but it should be remembered that his team played some of the best football of the 2006 World Cup before elimination on penalties to Germany.
Pekerman took over a Colombia side that had shown glimpses of their potential at the Copa America, but he has quickly looked to introduce a better balance to the side. The addition of Teo Gutiérrez alongside Falcao in the forward line has seen the goals flow, whilst the creative talents of young star James Rodriguez are blended with those of the criminally underrated Macnelly Torres.
Pekerman then allows his naturally adventurous full-backs to then push-on and support the attack, with a holding midfield duo supporting the defensive effort. The Argentine has implemented a system that offers his best players freedom to excel and they have certainly not disappointed.
Self-Belief and Confidence
In the past few months, Colombia have put four goals past Uruguay, beaten Chile in Santiago and cantered to victories over Paraguay and Cameroon. All that before truly giving Brazil a fright in a 1-1 draw in New Jersey. This is a side that now believes in its own ability.
Although there were positives from the performance at the 2011 Copa America, it was this self-belief that was lacking and, ultimately, Colombia crumbled tamely to Peru in the quarter-final. With several players now flying high in European football and a series of impressive results recently, confidence is no longer an issue.
The Brazil match earlier this month perhaps offers the best example of this newfound attitude. Against their traditionally successful neighbours, Colombia would often, in the past, set their stall out to defend. This time, there was no hint of retreating into their shell, as Colombia flew out of the blocks and took a well-deserved lead.
This winning mentality that they have fostered over the past 12 months can only serve them well should they qualify for the World Cup in Brazil. Anyone who underestimates this side could be in for a cruel awakening.
It is often said that the key to winning titles, particularly cup competitions, is having the best defence. Colombia may not have the best individual defenders, but their system has seen them ship just three goals in Pekerman's eight games at the helm—including difficult away trips to Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Chile, as well as the fixture with Brazil.
Under previous manager Leonel Álvarez, Colombia operated in a 4-3-3 system, but that was quickly abandoned by the incoming Argentine in favour of a 4-2-2-2 set-up. With full-backs Camilo Zuñiga and Pablo Armero both forward-thinking, Pekerman has opted instead for two defensive-midfielders to protect his aging centre-backs.
The result has been a solid base to the side that has proved difficult to break down, whilst playing with two deep-lying midfielders has also allowed Colombia to improve their ball-retention that had been a weak point in previous years.
Pekerman has acknowledged one of his side's weaknesses, the lack of pace in the heart of defence, and turned it into a strength by building a system to compensate for the aging Mario Yepes and Luis Perea. The duo are allowed to sit deep and play to their strengths, without the fear of being exposed by the pace of the opposition attack.
While there may be a lack of pace at the heart of the defence, there is certainly no shortage on the flanks. By stripping the side of its three-man forward line, Pekerman has handed sole responsibility for the wide areas to the full-backs. The results have been spectacular.
In Napoli's Zuñiga on the right and Udinese star Armero on the left, Colombia have two of the best wing-backs in the business and, by playing two holding-midfielders, offer them the tactical freedom to become a real asset in attacking areas.
In attack, the duo form what is effectively a line of four players behind the two strikers, overlapping attacking-midfielders Rodriguez and Torres to offer a threat from wide. With Falcao known for his aerial ability, these excursions in wide areas can offer a considerable goal-threat.
In the recent draw with Brazil, the Seleção were forced to alter their plans at half-time precisely to offer their full-backs more protection. Colombia were finding space on the flanks with ease and on that occasion it was Fiorentina right-back Juan Cuadrado doing most of the damage.
Dealing with these marauding wing-backs will be a real test for some at the World Cup, with most sides set-up to deal with a more traditional winger, or the modern preference of an inverted wide-player.
World Class Attacking Talent
In striker Radamel Falcao, Colombia possess the man considered by many to be the best centre-forward operating anywhere in the world at present. The former Porto and River Plate player has scored goals for fun in Portugal, Spain and the Europa League over the past few seasons, and is now tipped to join European champions Chelsea in the near future.
Falcao offers Colombia the potential to shock any opponent. His pace, movement, aerial ability and finishing prowess make him an almost irresistible force. Pekerman can rest easy in the knowledge that if his side can create even a couple of chances, Falcao will likely convert them.
However, that is where the manager finds himself doubly blessed. In 21-year-old attacking-midfielder James Rodriguez, Colombia have the makings of a truly fantastic creative midfielder. The former Banfield youngster has taken Portugal by storm in 2012, having already seven goals to his name this season, and is another player linked with the great and good of European football.
With Rodriguez operating behind Falcao and his usual partner Gutiérrez, Colombia can be confident of creating chances and having the weapons to convert them. They simply need to ensure that they can provide their creative players with enough possession from which to conjure up magic.
With Rodriguez's free-scoring Porto team-mate Jackson Martinez also pushing for a place in the side, Pekerman cannot complain of a shortage of attacking talent—harness their potential and Colombia could go far in the fast-approaching World Cup.