Now that the CONMEBOL qualifiers are done (Colombia finished second) and the FIFA ranking that will determine World Cup seeding is a logarithm away from being finalized, it is up to manager Jose Pekerman to focus now on coming up with a Colombian team of 23 potential starters and finding out who the best 11 players are to handle three group stage games in 10 days plus the knockout rounds.
In mid-November Colombia will face Belgium and the Netherlands in pre-World Cup friendly action. Belgium, like Colombia, has not been in a World Cup in some time, with 2002 as their last appearance. Holland, on the other hand, is no stranger to the international stage.
One of the key differences between this Colombia team and the ones that did not qualify for 2002, 2006 and 2010 is regularity. Out of 16 qualifiers, Colombia had 11 players play in 10 or more games averaging 80 minutes per game. Only Uruguay came close to matching this level of chemistry. The only drawback to having this much chemistry could be inexperienced depth.
This lack of depth made Colombia’s most recent qualifier quite the roller coaster ride (RB Juan Zuniga of Napoli was missing). At home against Chile, Colombia came back from a 3-0 deficit and drew with the Chileans in a Jeckyl and Hyde like performance. Looking at the Chile game with a “glass half empty” approach would indicate there are several areas of improvement that Pekerman must address before the World Cup.
David Ospina has emerged as a no-brainer as Colombia’s No. 1. His energy and experience will make him a sure thing for many years to come. Unfortunately, there is no plan B in the event Ospina goes down (remember 2011 Copa America?).
Usual backups Faryd Mondragon and Camilo Vargas would benefit from a few caps pre-World Cup. Neither played a single minute during the qualifiers, so it would be wise for Colombia to give Vargas or Mondragon a half or two of playing time (Trivia: 42-year old Mondragon will be the only player on the roster that was part of the 1998 World Cup roster if selected).
Seven years ago, the thought of going up against Luis Perea and Mario Yepes would have rattled any striker. While both players bring leadership and experience to the team, Pekerman and even his predecessors have continuously relied upon on this aging duo, 34 and 37 years old respectively, to lead the back line.
The lack of pace and positioning was evident in the 2-0 loss to Uruguay and the three goals Chile scored during the first half of last Friday’s game. Perhaps the other options at center-back have not materialized on the training ground, but opposing strikers' mouths will be watering upon viewing the first half of the Chile game.
Center-backs such as Cristian Zapata, Carlos Valdes and Aquivaldo Mosquera have simply not played enough during the qualifying campaign. The three players have played a combined 10 games during the qualifiers.
Prior to the Paraguay match, Zapata’s only other opportunity lasted a whole 27 minutes before receiving a red card against Argentina. Valdes, on the other hand, was starting to become a regular in the starting 11 before returning back to the bench in favor of the Perea/Yepes duo.
One player that should be taken into consideration for the future is Eder Balanta, a young defender reportedly being monitored by FC Barcelona, which he discussed with Sport (via Sky Sports). Incorporating Balanta into the rotation would be a great strategic move for the long term and could be a viable option having featured regularly for River Plate recently.
Napoli’s Juan Zuniga and Pablo Armero are probably two players that are must-starts for every game. Their pace, ability to defend and playmaking ability is crucial to the success of Colombia. Unfortunately, the depth chart starts and ends with these two.
21-year old Stefan Medina was given a chance to provide cover for Armero and Zuniga during the Uruguay and Chile games and learned the hard way about how grueling South American qualifiers can be. Medina could be a part of the long-term plan, but right now, he needs minutes in games where the stakes are not as high.
Currently the best option after Zuniga and Armero comes at the risk of weakening the attack in Juan Cuadrado. While Cuadrado best serves as an attacker midfielder, he did start his career as a defender. Additional depth in the future may come from 21-year old Santiago Arias, who made his debut against Paraguay in the absence of Zuniga.
Throughout the qualifiers, the core of the midfield included Carlos Sanchez, Abel Aguilar, James Rodriguez, Cuadrado and Macnelly Torres. The deeper portion of the midfield regularly had Aguilar and Sanchez with a handful of appearances from Edwin Valencia. The disastrous first half against Chile showed a Colombian side that could not win the ball back or maintain any sort of possession and one which lacked any kind of cohesion.
One player who has been absent from the qualifiers for no specific reason has been Fredy Guarin. The box-to-box midfielder is probably the best midfielder on paper but has made few appearances under Pekerman.
At the start of the second half against Chile, both Guarin and Torres entered the game, and Colombia’s midfield looked more organized. While the results without Guarin have been there for Colombia, Pekerman is going to need the Inter man more frequently if the team wants to be a true contender.
Unfortunately, Guarin was not able to capitalize on his opportunity against Paraguay after receiving two yellow cards in the first half from boneheaded tackles. While he has displayed world-class form at Porto and Inter Milan in years past, Guarin has not had similar success under Pekerman.
Creatively, Pekerman has been able to find a solution with Rodriguez and Torres. While Rodriguez can be considered the playmaker from the wing, Torres has the attributes of a classic No. 10. The big question with Torres is his ability to remain consistent and hold his own against the top teams in the world. One player who will eventually be Rodriguez’s partner in the midfield is Porto’s Juan Quintero.
One of the top players from the U-20 World Cup in Turkey this past summer, Quintero is quickly becoming an integral part of Porto’s success. His partnership with Colombian striker Jackson Martinez at club level gives Pekerman an option at international level, as their club chemistry may be useful for the World Cup. Similar to how Germany incorporated Bayern Munich's Thomas Mueller to the international scene pre-2010 World Cup, look for Pekerman to hopefully do the same with Quintero.
Pekerman’s go-to strikers have consistently been Falcao and Gutierrez. Both strikers have put up the stats and earned the confidence of the fans. While the depth chart includes Carlos Bacca, Luis Muriel and Jackson Martinez, one striker who could yet make a claim for a call-up is Fredy Montero.
Since heading to Sporting Lisbon on loan from Seattle Sounders, Montero has hit the back of the net nine times in seven games. If the Portuguese League could make a name out of Falcao and Martinez, then Montero could be next. Unfortunately, when it comes to strikers, Pekerman can only go with two, maybe three during a game. For now, it is important for Pekerman to rotate strikers more frequently.
At this point, now that Colombia’s core team has been established, it is important to get the other players such as Zapata, Valdes, Quintero, Guarin, Muriel, Bacca and Martinez up to speed for when they are called upon to play when it matters.
World Cup history has clearly shown that injuries and suspensions over the one-month tournament can have a huge impact. Preparation and playing time across the depth chart is essential to any good World Cup performance.
Possible World Cup Starting 11
Goalkeeper: David Ospina
Defense: Juan Zuniga, Cristian Zapata, Mario Yepes, Pablo Armero
Midfield: Juan Quintero, Fredy Guarin, Abel Aguilar, James Rodriguez
Strikers: Teo Gutierrez, Radamel Falcao
Follow me on Twitter @Furnaccio