Colombia’s national team continues to make progress as they seek their first World Cup berth since 1998. This past Friday, Colombia cruised to a 5-0 victory over Bolivia in Barranquilla, Colombia. With 19 points, Colombia is in second place in the CONMEBOL standings.
Argentina, with an extra game played, currently has 23 points while Ecuador has 17 points. The race for 4th and 5th place in the qualification tables is very tight with Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Peru all within two points of each other at 11 to 13 points each.
Unlike previous World Cup Qualification campaigns where Colombia struggled to stay in the top five, this Colombian squad, coached by Argentine Jose Pekerman, is playing with a level of confidence and swagger that has not been seen since the days of Faustino Asprilla, Carlos Valderrama and Freddy Rincon.
One of the keys to Pekerman’s success has been his ability to stick with a consistent lineup.
Even though a player like Fredy Guarín (Inter Milan) on paper is probably rated higher than nearly all of the midfielders on the roster, Pekerman has continuously relied upon Edwin Valencia (Fluminense), Abel Aguilar (Deportivo de La Coruña), Macnelly Torres (Atlético Nacional) and James Rodríguez (FC Porto) to be the everyday midfield.
This group has proven game after game to be the right midfield of choice—sometimes the right players on the field are better than the best players available.
Each player plays a specific role in Pekerman’s master plan. Valencia is the ball winner and defensive specialist. Aguilar plays the “Gilberto Silva” role of making short quick passes and playing in a box-to-box role—his presence on the field can go unnoticed at times which means his job is being done properly.
Torres is the secondary playmaker who pushes forward but in a more conservative fashion while James is the primary playmaker and is the driving force behind Colombia’s attack. Colombia without James is essentially the Colombia people are used to seeing 1998–2010.
For the first time in a long time though, Colombia’s midfield has quickly experienced a high-class problem in the form of Juan Guillermo Cuadrado (Fiorentina—on loan from Udinese). Initially used in the “super sub” role, Cuadrado has become one of Colombia’s most important players.
In his first starting role under Pekerman, Cuadrado was the man of the match against Brazil. Not only did he score the lone goal for Colombia, he essentially took the game into his own hands and had the most touches and showed no fear against the Brazilians.
In Colombia’s next friendly against Guatemala, Cuadrado once again stepped up and proved how important he can be to Colombia’s attack, as los cafeteros were without James and Radamel Falcao (Atletico Madrid) for that match.
Cuadrado’s explosive pace and his "no-fear" attitude to take on any defender one-on-one make him a legit concern for any opposing team. Consider Cuadrado to be a Colombian version of Theo Walcott (Arsenal), but is less injury prone, more consistent and more versatile on the field as Cuadrado came up as a defender for Independiente Medellin before developing into a winger in Italy.
In the match against Bolivia, Cuadrado started the game as the right back, but since Colombia was hardly threatened by Bolivia’s attack, Cuadrado carried the game on his shoulders and proved his worth in this world cup qualifier match. To the casual fan, one would have thought he was the playmaker, as Cuadrado is not afraid to lead the attack——a mentality absent from past Colombian midfielders pre-Pekerman.
With the game essentially out of reach by the 80th minute, Pekerman pulled Cuadrado off the pitch after a rough knock as a precaution and put in another speedster Pablo Armero (Napoli) who needed the playing time due to minimal appearances with his new club. Needless to say, Armero was not rusty as he laid a brilliant cross that led to a goal by Falcao and scored his first goal for the national team in the 93rd minute.
This Tuesday, Colombia head to Venezuela who come home after a rough 3-0 defeat to Argentina. The last time these teams faced each other (November 2011), Colombia was without Pekerman, Falcao and Cuadrado, which resulted in a 1-1 draw in Colombia.
This time around, Colombia comes to the pitch with a more cohesive team and a game plan. Should Pekerman stick with Armero and Juan Zuniga (Napoli) as the fullbacks and his core midfield of Valencia-Aguilar-Torres-Rodriguez, watch out for Cuadrado to be the first player off the bench to change up the pace of the game early in the second half.
With James coming off a recent injury at the club level, expect Guarin to get some minutes as well. The powerful midfielder looked sharp in the last ten minutes of the Bolivia match as he set up the final two goals from Friday’s game. Players like Guarin and Cuadrado are crucial x-factors that will be vital to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Also on the bench are players like Aldo Ramirez (Morelia) who has been excellent cover for Torres, defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez (Valenciennes) and the up and coming Juan Fernando Quintero (Pescara) who was the key to Colombia’s sub-20 South American championship winning team.
Even though he is unlikely to be getting playing time on Tuesday, the youngster will benefit from the training sessions and will be integrated into the system after the sub-20 World Cup later this summer.
A win at Venezuela will give Colombia plenty of breathing room and a comfortable place in the CONMEBOL standings as Colombia will travel south and face Argentina on June 7, 2013—a match that will certainly fill seats at any soccer bar. See you on Tuesday in Venezuela!
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