On Wednesday night, the Colombian National Team will play its first game of 2013 in an international friendly against Guatemala in Miami, Florida.
Preparing for the Central American Nations Cup, Guatemala is fielding a team comprised of all domestic players that lack the experience the Colombians bring to the table. Recent results include back-to-back 3-1 losses to Paraguay and the United States.
On paper, this matchup does not attract the same sexiness that the Brazil-Colombia friendly attracted back in November, but the match will be beneficial for players who have not played as much recently due to the injuries James Rodriguez (FC Porto) and Radamel Falcao (Atletico Madrid) recently sustained.
David Ospina (Nice) will get the nod once again to lead the defense. Outside of a major injury, Ospina will continue to remain the No. 1 goalkeeper for Colombia. Surprisingly, the only other keeper called up for the friendly was the ageless Faryd Mondragon (Deportivo Cali). The 41-year-old Colombian legend will serve a great mentor to the 24-year-old Ospina. Would a call-up to some of Colombia’s younger keepers have made some sense given the circumstances of this match?
Once again Jose Pekerman continues to stick with his core defensive unit of Juan Zuniga and Pablo Armero (Napoli) as his full-backs and center-backs Mario Yepes, Cristian Zapata (AC Milan), Carlos Valdes (Santa Fe), Aquivaldo Mosquera (America) and Luis Perea (Cruz Azul).
Expect to see both Zuniga and the speedy Armero on the flanks where Colombia’s attack will begin. Zuniga has become Colombia’s equivalent to Dani Alves—playmaking from the backline and moving the ball up the pitch faster than the average defender—while Armero brings pace and a strong left foot on the other side of the pitch. If Armero were to develop his right foot and better shot taking skills, he could be considered up there with Marcelo as a world class LB.
This game would be perfect for the in-form Zapata to get some playing time as he has been receiving several opportunities at Milan in recent games. Between the other center-backs, a game like this would benefit Mosquera and Valdes the most given the number of caps both have. Mosquera had a challenging game in November against Brazil as he had to cover Neymar for a good portion of the match. For a game like this, I think Pekerman will most likely go with Yepes and Zapata to start (Yepes has not played for Milan since December, so he needs the match fitness) in the first half and the second half will feature the other defenders to get some time on the pitch.
What used to be Colombia’s biggest weakness has now become one its strengths. Anchoring the midfield will either be Edwin Valencia (Fluminense) or Carlos Sanchez (Valenciennes). Both midfielders have done a great job under Pekerman, but it seems that Valencia has been the regular starter and Sanchez has been the defensive sub in the latter part of the recent qualifiers.
In the “Gilberto Silva” role, Pekerman has at his disposal Aldo Ramirez (Morelia), MacNelly Torres (Atletico Nacional) and Abel Aguilar (Deportivo de La Coruña). In this role, the main responsibility has been to serve as the link between the defense and the attack with short quick passes.
Watch and see how these three players receive the ball only to make a short quick pass to the next player. While the runs and one-on-one challenges will be done by players like Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina) and James, players like Aguilar, Ramirez and Torres will be playing in that setup role. This is where Pekerman differs greatly from past Colombian managers. Before Pekerman, there was never any organization in the midfield; but now, each midfielder has a role and the players stick to that role.
Attacking-wise, be on the lookout for Cuadrado and Freddy Guarin (Inter Milan). The absence of James creates a golden opportunity for Guarin and Cuadrado to create some goal opportunities. Against Brazil, Cuadrado was arguably the man of the match as he clearly had the most touches with the ball and scored the lone goal for Colombia.
Guarin’s situation is quite interesting as Colombia has been able to convincingly win recent key qualifier games against Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay without the star midfielder. While he has clearly proven to be a world class box-to-box midfielder at the club level, Pekerman has a high-class problem in figuring out how best to utilize Guarin with current key players James, Torres, Aguilar/Ramirez and Valencia as the regular starters.
Falcao’s injury will most likely allow young strikers such as Luis Muriel (Udinese) and Carlos Bacca (Club Brugge) to get some international experience. Also expect to see both Teófilo Gutiérrez (Cruz Azul) and Jackson Martinez (FC Porto) to split time up front. While Gutiérrez has been the regular starter under Pekerman, Martinez cannot be overlooked as he has been effective with the national team with 6 goals in 16 caps—not to mention the fact that he has been quite the replacement for Falcao at Porto —another high class problem for Pekerman.
While there are no surprises with this current roster, look for Colombia to use this game as an experiment to see how they can play without Falcao and James. Unlike the recent Brazil friendly, expect to see several substitutions after the first half and look for the players that have not received as much playing time over the past year to seize the opportunity to prove they can play an integral role with the national team.
Look for Colombia to strike early and experiment with different strategies by the second half.
Prediction: 3-0 victory for Colombia. See you in Miami!
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