World Cup team preview: Colombia
By Mark Smith
To South Americans, it's odd that Colombia are only just returning to World Cup action after a lengthy absence of 16 years. Blessed with an abundance of talent throughout their absence, the Tricolor have been tough opponents for 25 years.
Colombian squads have often imploded due to the lack of professionalism. Since Argentine coach Jose Pekerman took over, however, they have maximised their potential without compromising on style or philosophy.
They qualified for Brazil with relative ease, just two points behind leaders Argentina, with defender Mario Yepes and striker Radamel Falcao invaluable leaders in the dressing room. Falcao's knee injury might even have lifted the pressure off a nation that remembers the promise and tragedy of 1994, when the would-be glory of a brilliant generation ended with the murder of defender Andres Escobar.
If Falcao doesn't make it, or if he makes it but isn't quite fit enough, Colombia lose all hope. El Tigre is a national icon and the squads most inspiring player off the pitch, and his influence on it is enormous and nobody can replace him.
The same was said about Atletico Madrid this season, but a redeployed Diego Costa has filled a gap magnificently. Colombia have a roster of fine strikers in Jackson Martinez, Teo Gutierrez, Dorlan Pabon and Carlos Bocca. A fit Falcao is great and will boost team spirit significantly, but the first XI can survive without him.
Jose Pekerman is a shrewd man, responsible for the revolution of Argentina's U20's 19 years ago, he left his native country to the quarters in 2006. He was on the verge of retirement until Colombia came knocking in 2012.
Like his 2006 Argentina side, Pekerman's team play at a deceptively slow pace, lulling teams into a trap as Colombia switch from seemingly ineffective possession to incisive attacking at the drop of a hat. The teams core is it's highly technical midfield, with Monaco's gifted James Rodriguez pulling the strings in a 4-3-1-2. If the weather is hot, Colombia will relish suffocating more well adapted opponents.
Retaining the ball is like religion in Colombia, with midfielders Fredy Guarin, Macnelly Torres and Rodriguez, this generation respects tradition but sprinkles in a change of rhythm thanks to pack full-back options Juan Camilo Zuniga, Pablo Armero and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado.
With distractions on and off the pitch, Pekerman has improved concentration levels and even brought in a physiologist to improve the side's metal attitude. He has chosen Sau Paulo's training facilities to isolate the team from the distractions of fans and journalists as much as possible. The short temper of striker Teo Gutierrez will also need to be watched: for all his talent he has been known to divide dressing rooms at club level.
Lessons from qualifying:
It's not just about technical players: Colombia have a strong defensive unit. They ended qualifying with seven clean sheets in 16 games, shipping on 13 goals in total - the feast in the group. The shutouts were aided by the impressive form of Nice keeper David Ospina.
James Rodrigues, 'Hames' as he is known by Colombians, is his country's best player when Monaco club-mate Falcao isn't around. The playmaker showed his effectiveness by scoring the opener in three qualifiers. Quick, tough and an accurate passer with a vicious shot, J-Rod makes things happen; his significance will be maligned if Falcao doesn't make the cut.
Against Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, Colombia shouldn't have any problems qualifying for the next round, as Pekerman's wry smile during the finals draw suggested. Winning two games and making the round of 16 would constitute Colombia's best ever World Cup and if they can get up a head of steam, they could go deep into the tournament