Captain: Radamel Falcao
Manager: Jose Pekerman
Nickname: Los Cafeteros
How they qualified: Fourth in the South American behind Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina
Preferred system: 4-2-3-1
Star player: James Rodríguez (Bayern Munich, on loan from Real Madrid)
One to watch: Davinson Sánchez (Tottenham Hotspur)
Colombia will aim to repeat their performance from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when they reached the quarter-finals but it will be harder as they are not among the top seeds. That is an indication of the fact qualifying was not straightforward. “Qualifying was really hard,” says the coach, José Pékerman. “We’ve never experienced a situation where so few points separated so many teams.” Three factors explain the difficulties Colombia had: the need to inject youth in defence, the lack of playing time for the stars (James Rodríguez at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Radamel Falcao at Monaco and David Ospina at Arsenal) and the lack of options going forward. Pékerman often plays 4-2-3-1 but has tried 4-3-2-1 away from home. Colombia had their best results when they were more defensive and compact between the lines, hitting on the counter with speed and very few passes.
Colombia’s qualifying campaign wasn’t long-suffering but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. They lost points against the stronger teams, but they always capitalized on the weaker ones. They lost both of their games against Argentina and couldn’t manage any wins against Brazil, Uruguay or Chile. Their best moments were a clear win over then unbeaten Ecuador and a tie in Lima on the final matchday against Peru, which earned them automatic qualification.
It’s clear that Colombia has the players to compete against the very best. They have players used to playing in the top European leagues at every position, led by James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. The Bayern Munich No.10 finished top scorer at the 2014 World Cup and arrives in Russia in top shape, he’s already one of the tournament’s favorites to score the most goals. Falcao also has high personal expectations for this tournament after missing the last World Cup through injury. Colombia’s 2014 World Cup squad adds two new center-backs who will mark an era: Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina. They make up a solid backline with Santiago Arias and Frank Fabra while other quality players like Juan Cuadrado and Luis Muriel boost the team.
Even though the Colombia national team has participated in the bigger international tournaments over the past few cycles, they have come up short against the best teams in the top competitions. They need to believe they have the individual and collective assets required to defeat anyone. Another issue that’s come up after Brazil 2014 is the lack of strength in the midfield. They are too often overplayed in that area, which negates their quality at both ends. Jose Pekerman should go for a dynamic and creative midfield in order to boost his forwards.
James Rodriguez was already Colombia’s best player before the 2014 World Cup but nobody expected he would become one of the best in the world. At 22, he ended up being the tournament’s top scorer and the leader of the best team Colombia has ever deployed at a World Cup. He added personality and attitude to lead his team in each and every game he played. Nowadays, as a more mature player with experience at two of the top clubs in Europe and coming off a good season at Bayern Munich, Colombian fans will be expecting a lot of him.
If they aim to match their performance in Brazil, they will have to defeat England or Belgium in the round of 16, either of which would be a spectacular challenge for a group of players eager to show their worth. To reach the quarterfinals would be a resounding success while the least expected accomplishment for an acceptable performance would be a victory in the Round of 16. In qualifying they struggles against the top teams, which indicates they might not progress as high as their quarter final appearance 4 years ago.