Projecting Colombia's World Cup Team in 2014
With Colombia sitting comfortably among the top three sides in the South American qualification table ahead of the 2014 World Cup, it appears as if the sleeping giants will once more be strutting their stuff on the global stage.
With their Under-20 side currently continental champions, and the senior side coming off a glorious year in 2012, there is a feel-good factor about Colombian football that has not existed since the buildup to the 1994 World Cup.
While that campaign may have ended in tragic circumstances, the '94 side is still firmly regarded as the country's most iconic side. There are, though, mutterings that this current team could match its illustrious predecessor.
Without further ado, then, let's take a look at the 11 players who may be picked to line up for their country come June 2012.
Goalkeeper: David Ospina
Nice goalkeeper David Ospina has been the first-choice goalkeeper for Colombia throughout the past four-year cycle. He has a wealth of experience for a goalkeeper of just 24 years old.
Ospina has been linked with an array of clubs around Europe, but he continues to impress in Ligue 1 for the time being.
A fine all-around goalkeeper, the Colombian No. 1 combines good reflexes with impressive positional acumen and a sense of calm within the penalty area.
No other goalkeeper has started a game for the South American nation since the Copa America 2011, when Ospina picked up an injury. That is a fact unlikely to change anytime soon.
Right-Back: Camilo Zuniga
Napoli right-back Camilo Zuniga is another who has been in place for Los Cafeteros for some time now, and he looks set to maintain his presence in the national team until at least 2014.
The speedy wing-back will be 28 come the tournament itself, and while there is intense pressure coming from young pretender Juan Cuadrado, it is Zuniga who has experience and familiarity on his side.
A solid defender, Zuniga excels when pushing forward, with good crossing skills and enough speed and close control to beat an opponent.
How much he will be able to push forward at the World Cup remains to be seen, with Colombia set to face a higher level of opponent than in qualifying. However, should he be able to, he will be an important supply route to striker Falcao.
Centre-Back: Mario Yepes
Veteran central defender Mario Yepes will be 38 years old next summer, but he's shown no sign of surrendering his position in the national side.
Having got to within a year of a chance of playing at the World Cup, it is unlikely he will give up now. It is simply a case of getting enough minutes under his belt at club level to justify selection.
The AC Milan defender is famously rugged and has never been blessed with great pace. As long as he can prove that his ever-decreasing mobility is not an issue, he will continue to play in the Colombian back line.
With few young defenders knocking at the door for inclusion, he would seem safe for now. The biggest threat to his inclusion could come if out-of-favour teammate Cristian Zapata were to find his best form at club level.
Centre-Back: Carlos Valdez
Although Cruz Azul defender Luis Perea has been on the hot seat for much of the qualification run, it appears that Philadelphia Union-owned defender Carlos Valdez is currently leading the race to partner Yepes at the heart of the defence.
The 27-year-old, currently loaned to Colombian side Santa Fe, is one of the younger defenders in contention for a place at the tournament and has impressed in his international appearances to date.
With Perea and fellow former Atletico Madrid defender Aquivaldo Mosquera both comfortably on the wrong side of 30, it would seem unlikely that either will find a run of form to replace their younger colleague.
Once more, it will be Zapata who could prove the biggest threat to Valdez in terms of a starting place in the side.
Left-Back: Pablo Armero
Left wing-back Pablo Armero has been going through a difficult phase at club level this season, having lost his starting place at Udinese before being loaned to Napoli.
However, as many regular Serie A observers will testify, he is a terrifying prospect from deep on the left flank when fit and in form.
Armero possesses electric pace and has proven to be an excellent provider of crosses from the left flank for the likes of Falcao in the centre.
Like for Zuniga on the right, the rise of Cuadrado is a potential issue. Zuniga's versatility means he could switch to the left if needed, meaning Armero cannot afford to fall behind his rivals over the next 12 months.
On paper, he is the best of the Colombia's three leading full-backs. He must, though, ensure he arrives at the World Cup off the back of an impressive season at club level.
Central Midfield: Abel Aguilar
Deportivo La Coruna midfielder Abel Aguilar has been an integral part of the Colombia setup in recent times, becoming a firm favourite of current manager Jose Pekerman.
Aguilar combines excellent close control and passing ability with a combative nature and good tackling abilities. His presence at the base of the midfield has been highly influential to the side's rise to the top in South America.
The former Deportivo Cali and Udinese player has always been a talented prospect, but he has come of age over the past two or three seasons in La Liga to become a very good midfield player.
There is competition from the likes of Fredy Guarin and Carlos Sanchez for his role, but Aguilar should be one of the first names on the team sheet come next summer.
Central Midfield: Edwin Valencia
A somewhat surprise inclusion initially, Fluminense defensive midfielder Edwin Valencia has been a regular in the Colombia side in recent fixtures under Pekerman.
Whether he will retain his place until next year's tournament remains to be seen, but he has provided a valuable steadying role in midfield ever since coming into the side. Displacing the much more renowned figures of Guarin and Sanchez has proved beneficial to the side's balance.
The 28-year-old is not a regular starter for his Brazilian side. He does, though, get plenty of games each season, thanks largely to the congested mess that is the Brazilian calendar (although many have come against substantially lesser opponents).
Whether his lack of truly competitive games will cost him his role remains to be seen, and he might not remain at Fluminense for another 12 months. His experience of Brazilian conditions, though, could be his ticket into the side for the coming World Cup.
Attacking Midfielder: Macnelly Torres
Another domestic-based player to come to the fore under Pekerman, attacking midfield playmaker Macnelly Torres appears to be finally coming good on the talent that has threatened to make him a fine player for many years.
For everything that he lacks in terms of physical strength and even big-game mentality, Torres makes up for with wonderful technical ability. His frailty and up-and-down mental state have inhibited his career, but he is feeling loved under Pekerman and playing an important role in central areas.
The Atlético Nacional midfielder is the attacking hub of the current Colombia side, with everything passing through his feet en route to the wonderful attacking talents ahead of him. Thus far, he is relishing the responsibility.
Torres has long been one of the most feared players in South American domestic football, and at World Cup 2014, he will finally have the chance to show his talents to a wider audience.
Attacking Midfielder: James Rodriguez
Porto's 21-year-old attacking midfielder will likely start to the left of Torres and be expected to help push on and support striker Falcao when possible.
The young star has been heavily linked with a move to Manchester United for the past 12 months, but he comes with a hefty price tag. Unless that is met this summer, he will remain in Portugal until next summer's football bonanza (Telegraph).
One of the brightest young talents in European football at present, Rodriguez has a wand of a left foot and combines it with agility and invention to become a truly potent attacking talent.
The Colombian currently sits on nine league goals for the 2012-13 campaign and is already in double figures for assists this campaign. If Colombia is to shine in 2014, it will need James to be on top form.
Attacking Midfielder: Juan Cuadrado
There is a dilemma for Jose Pekerman over the next 12 months in terms of what formation he will play at the 2014 tournament, with qualifying having seen a traditional 4-2-2-2 often interchanged for more of a 4-2-3-1 away from home.
Given the quality of opposition they will face at the World Cup, it seems likely that Pekerman may decide to opt for the latter at the tournament—a more defensively secure formation in wide areas.
In that case, it is likely he would opt for Juan Cuadrado to complete an attacking midfield trio, offering protection in front of right-back Zuniga. Should he choose to play with a second striker, then it is Teo Gutierrez who would likely be preferred to Porto's free-scoring Jackson Martinez.
Cuadrado offers yet more pace on the counterattack as well as defensive understanding. It could well be that his threat on the counter is the ideal solution if Colombia is to come under pressure against the world's better footballing sides.
Centre-Forward: Radamel Falcao
The star man for both club and country, those tipping Colombia to cause a surprise next summer will be expectant of a big performance from super striker Radamel Falcao.
The Atlético Madrid man has scored six goals in eight games in qualification for the tournament, to add to his 25 La Liga goals already notched this season. He is also, of course, the record goalscorer in Europa League history.
The former River Plate man has undeniably been a phenomenon over recent seasons and offers Pekerman a trusted figure to spearhead his side's challenge. Whether played as a lone striker or as part of a duo, Falcao has proven equally comfortable.
Talk of a transfer to Manchester United this summer has recently propelled Falcao into the headlines for more than just his on-pitch prowess (Daily Mail). But wherever he ends up playing next season, he will inevitably bring a surefire supply of goals with him. The absolute key figure to Colombia's chances.