Colombia's journey to the 2014 World Cup continues, as Los Cafeteros have less than a year to go before going to work against the rest of the world in Brazil.
With a No. 3 world ranking according to FIFA and a firm position in the CONMEBOL rankings, Colombia look to be in the driver's seat as they seek to secure their first World Cup berth since 1998.
On September 6 and 10, respectively, Colombia will face Ecuador and Uruguay in what still remains a tight race to qualify out of the South America pool. Currently, Colombia (23 points) have a game in hand relative to Argentina, who are on top of the table with 26 points. Ecuador and Chile are just behind Colombia with 21 points each, while Uruguay have battled through inconsistency during qualifications and are sitting in fifth place with 16 points (tied with Venezuela).
Ecuador, a team that struggles on the road, has their work cut out for them as they travel to Baranquilla, where Colombia has yet to drop any points under manager Jose Pekerman. Unlike your typical qualifier, Ecuador have more to play for, as this will be their first CONMEBOL qualifier match without recently deceased Christian "Chucho" Benitez.
In Benitez, the world lost a great player who had been integral to Ecuador's qualifying campaign. Ecuador will be playing their hearts out as they pay respect to a fallen comrade. In a recent friendly, Ecuador fell 2-0 to Spain, so they will be ready to face the firepower that Colombia bring to the table.
On September 10, Colombia will travel to Uruguay to face a team that has had quite a busy summer. Similar to the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers, Uruguay are looking to sneak into a qualifying position, and every match is do-or-die.
Things may turn for the better, as Uruguay had an impressive Confederations Cup performance, facing some of the world's best in just a two-week period. There was no shame in their hard-fought losses to Spain, Brazil and Italy. With an attack that features Luis Suarez (Liverpool), Edinson Cavani (PSG) and Diego Forlan (Internacional), there is no telling which version of Uruguay shows up—the one that shows up in major tournaments (2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America) or the one that has dropped points in eight of 12 qualifying matches.
With one club campaign to go before the World Cup, the top priority for most players is finding a team in which playing time and form are critical. This summer, several of Colombia's key players moved on to new squads, where they will look to grow and gain more experience in anticipation of the World Cup.
Defensively, one of the more talked-about concerns among Colombian supporters has been the fitness and form of captain Mario Yepes (Atalanta). At 37 years old, he may not be the same defender that we remember him being at the turn of the century, but he does bring experience and leadership to the table.
In the last two seasons, while at AC Milan, the centre-back played fewer than 20 games per year, which is simply not enough when defenders such as Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Sergio Ramos and other world-class defenders are logging 35- to 50-game seasons. This season, Yepes will continue to play in the Serie A for a team that will play one game per week.
Among the midfielders, several players moved to new clubs. Box-to-box midfielder Abel Aguilar (Toulouse) left La Liga to play in France, while defensive mid Carlos Sanchez (Elche) did the exact opposite. Playmaker/attacking midfielder James Rodriguez left Porto this summer and joined his old Porto teammate and current national team striker Radamel Falcao in a big move to France. Having this duo playing together every week will only benefit Colombia in the long-term as they seek to develop a chemistry that is rivaled only by nations such as Spain and Germany.
The biggest question mark for Colombia this year will be the inclusion of the up-and-coming Juan Fernando Quintero (FC Porto). One of the stars from this summer's Under-20 World Cup, the deep-lying playmaker joined the Portuguese side that has made players such as Falcao, Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez (Porto) and Fredy Guarin (Inter Milan) into household names.
After Quintero's strong performance in the U20 World Cup, Porto brought him in to replace the recently departed Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho (Monaco). Viewed as the future playmaker for Colombia, Quintero played in a recent friendly against Serbia, which Colombia won 1-0. While he did not feature with many of the first-team players, it will only be a matter of time before he is a mainstay in the midfield along with Rodriguez. Between Quintero's ability to play in a deep role, a la Andrea Pirlo, and Rodriguez's ability to lead the attack in a more advanced role, Colombia's midfield could be a threat for a long time to come.
Unfortunately, this might mean that Macnelly Torres' (Al-Shabab) days in the midfield are numbered. At 28 years old, his role in Pekerman's plan has been working quite well. But with his recent move to the Middle East to play club football, has Torres basically given up his future with the national team? Usually a move to the Middle East or Asia to play club football does not help a player's chances for playing for a South American national team (remember Mao Molina and Gio Moreno?).
For everything Torres has been able to accomplish, the powers that be likely see Quintero as a key member of Colombia's future and will gradually incorporate him into the starting XI. For now, expect to see Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina) in that starting right midfield role as Quintero slowly adapts to playing in Portugal and the Champions League and prepares himself for an everyday role with the national team.
Up front, Colombia will continue to use the strike force of Falcao, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca (Sevilla) Teo Gutierrez (River Plate) and Luis Muriel (Udinese). While Falcao will continue to be an everyday player, who is best suited to partner up with Falcao? The best results have been seen with Gutierrez due to his ability to drop back into a supporting striker/attacking midfield role at times. On paper, though, everyone wishes it was Jackson given his form at Porto and chemistry with Rodriguez and now Quintero.
Can this Colombia team stack up against the world's best in the 2014 World Cup?
Pekerman looks to continue to have faith in Gutierrez, but hopefully this spell in Argentina will go better than the last time he was in Argentina when he played for Racing. Should Gutierrez slip up, Bacca and Muriel have shows flashes of brilliance in their few appearances in the yellow shirt. Between those two and Jackson, who is a proven world-class striker, the depth chart up top is quite solid.
Look for Colombia to continue their winning ways, though both matches will be hard-fought, as both Ecuador and Uruguay have a lot to play for with their backs to the wall. While Colombia has a lot less to lose from these two matches, Los Cafeteros will continue to play freely and attack hard as they look to earn a top seed for the upcoming World Cup, which is currently a high probability based on recent results.
Colombia vs Ecuador: Friday, September 6, 2013 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Colombia vs. Uruguay: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 5:00 p.m. ET
See you on the pitch!
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