Colombia Still Potential Copa America Winners Despite Slip-Up in Group Stage

Rik Sharma@@riksharma_Featured ColumnistJune 12, 2016

Colombia's James Rodriguez (10) takes a shot on goal past Costa Rica's Celso Borges (5) during a Copa America Centenario group A soccer match Saturday, June 11, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Jose Pekerman rolled the dice and lost. But despite some critical voices, the coach's gamble was not a foolish one.

He decided to rotate 10 players out of the team that beat Paraguay in the second Copa America clash and play reserves and squad players against Costa Rica on Saturday night in Houston.

Colombia lost 3-2 in a pulsating clash, and it meant they surrendered the top spot in Group A to the United States, who beat Paraguay earlier in the evening.

A draw or win would have been enough for Los Cafeteros to win the group.

Colombia's James Rodriguez (10) argues with the referees after being defeated by Costa Rica in their Copa America Centenario football tournament match in Houston, Texas, United States, on June 11, 2016.  / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA        (Photo credit shoul

Pekerman had good reasons behind his decision. The coach wanted, primarily, to rest his first team.

The Copa America Centenario is a brutal tournament. The distances travelled and the heat in some of the locations has made it tough for some teams to handle.

Uruguay made a big point of this, with coach Oscar Tabarez lashing out, per Goal.

It’s going to be played all over the United States, I don’t like it. The teams that reach the final will have been over the whole of the country - and it’s an impressively big country. Then there’s the heat there, which, on top of the distances to be travelled, increases the demands [of the tournament]. That’s why I don’t think it will be an ordinary Copa America.

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Colombia's game against Costa Rica took place in hot conditions, with the temperature after the game still a high 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit).

Pekerman's men would have been playing again on Thursday night in the quarter-final had they topped the group. He clearly wanted to keep his men fresh for that potential game.

Furthermore, his selection decisions also protected first-teamers from suffering injuries against Costa Rica.

By picking players who hadn't had as much game time in the tournament, he was also giving them match fitness, which will be useful if they are needed further down the line.

In some cases, he was also helping his players build confidence, such as 19-year-old striker Marlos Moreno, who scored a fine strike as his team tried to fight back.

Colombia's Marlos Moreno celebrates after scoring against Costa Rica during the Copa America Centenario football tournament in Houston, Texas, United States, on June 11, 2016.  / AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA        (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP

Despite a string of late opportunities, Colombia lost, but finishing second could still work out in their favour, based on Sunday's results.

They now have an extra day's rest, playing on Friday in New Jersey.

Key striker Carlos Bacca did not feature at all, while other star men like James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado won't be too tired after their run out in the second half of the Costa Rica game.

And what's more, the main loss from finishing second is that they have to play the top team in Group B in the quarter-final, which many anticipate will be Brazil.

However, Dunga's Brazil are far from a reliable side, and it is possible that they could somehow come a cropper against Peru on Sunday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, ending up finishing second or even failing to reach the quarter-finals at all.

If that is the case, playing the first or second team won't make too much difference, because both Peru and Ecuador are equally strong.

Brazil coach Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, commonly known as Dunga, speaks during a press conference at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on June 11, 2016. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL        (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia will also have greater support playing in New Jersey than in Seattle because there are more expats in that part of the country.

Even if they do draw Brazil in the next round, they showed at the last Copa America they aren’t afraid of playing bigger sides.

They beat the Selecao in the group stages and then took Argentina all the way to a penalty shootout in the quarter-finals, which they eventually lost.

If they want to win the Copa America Centenario, they will have to beat better teams than Brazil to do so. Therefore, although it isn’t ideal to face them in the next round, it’s not a disaster by any means.

That much was reflected by Nicolas Otamendi stating Colombia were one of the favourites to win the tournament.

"The Copa has only just started, but Colombia are doing things well. They've already had two wins," he told Goal before Los Cafeteros faced Costa Rica.

Colombia’s start to this tournament showed they have the potential to go all the way and lift the trophy on June 26, even if they aren't considered favourites.

They made mincemeat of the USA in the first game at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Scoring after eight minutes through Cristian Zapata, they sat back and allowed the USA to build attacks which broke on the rocks of Daniel Torres and Sebastian Perez in defensive midfield.

Colombia's Daniel Torres (R) vies for the ball with Paraguay's Bruno Valdez (2-R) during a Copa America Centenario football match  in Pasadena, California, United States, on June 7, 2016.  / AFP / Frederic J. Brown        (Photo credit should read FREDERI

Then they completed a professional display by hitting the United States on the counter-attack, winning a penalty, which James converted coolly.

The Real Madrid star is one of the big reasons Colombia could lift this trophy.

He was the best player at the 2014 World Cup for some and scored in both of the two opening games of this tournament.

Coming off a bad season with his club on a personal level, it has felt like James has a point to prove.

According to Pekerman, he will need surgery after the tournament on a shoulder injury, something he exacerbated during the first game when he fell awkwardly against the United States.

"We realise that this injury could reoccur. He'll need surgery. Real Madrid has been informed," Pekerman said, per ESPN FC.

But that did not rule him out of the Paraguay match, a game in which James shone, even though Colombia experienced some tough moments of pressure.

Against Paraguay, he roamed and probed, pressuring the defence and working harder than he has in months with his club, at least to the naked eye.

Paraguay's Edgar Benitez (L) vies for the ball with Colombia's James Rodriguez during a Copa America Centenario football match in Pasadena, California, United States, on June 7, 2016.  / AFP / Frederic J. Brown        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J.

Colombia have been helped, too, by the clarity with which Pekerman uses his strikers.

Gone are Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez, all of whom have commanded game time in the past, with no clear indication of who is the preferred option.

There was too much chopping and changing going on. Now we know that it's Bacca, with younger players like Moreno in support. There is no confusion—except perhaps between the Morenos. (Dayro Moreno is another striker in the squad, but like Marlos, he knows he is backing up Bacca.)

Colombian football expert Carl Worswick told Bleacher Report at the start of the tournament that expectation levels were not excessively high in the country.

He said: "As long as people can see a continuation of the progress made during the last round of qualifiers, they’ll be satisfied.

"I suspect Colombia won’t have enough strength in depth or experience to trouble the latter stages of the tournament, but I doubt we’ll see a repeat of last year’s miserable effort either, when they exited the Copa America in Chile having scored just one goal."

SANTA CLARA, CA - JUNE 3:  Gyasi Zerdes #9 of United States battles James Rodriguez #10 of Colombia during the Copa America Centenario Group A match between the United States and Columbia at Levi's Stadium on June 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  Colo
Shaun Clark/Getty Images

That lower burden of pressure will also work in their favour, with the fans in the U.S. delighted when proceedings are going their way but not too harsh on the team when things go wrong.

For that reason, although supporters will be disappointed by the loss to Costa Rica that stopped them getting the top spot, they will already be thinking about the quarter-finals.

On Sunday night, they'll find out who they will face in New Jersey, and Brazil or otherwise, Colombia have the resources to get through that game and reach the semi-final.

Quotes taken firsthand unless otherwise stated.