Colombia Have To Improve If They Are To Live Up To Dark Horses Tag In Russia
Colombia secured their place at the 2018 World Cup without ever truly convincing during qualifying and on the evidence of their friendlies against South Korea last week and China on Tuesday, coach Jose Pekerman is still scratching around for solutions with just seven months to go until things get underway in Russia next summer.
Pekerman used 45 players during qualification, 10 more than were employed during the previous qualification cycle. Of that number, 35 started at least once. And four more made their debuts during this international break. Such a degree of experimentation indicates that he is not yet happy with the makeup of his squad.
When all are fit, his starting XI is relatively set: David Ospina in goal; Santiago Arias and Frank Fabra at full-back; two of Yerry Mina, Oscar Murillo, Davinson Sanchez and Cristian Zapata in the centre of defence; Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez in midfield; Juan Cuadrado, James Rodriguez and Edwin Cardona in the attacking midfield line; and a recuperated Radamel Falcao Garcia up front.
The problem has been in finding reliable alternatives in key positions and players capable of extracting more from the team’s most important players against certain types of opposition.
With Ospina injured, two goalkeepers were given a chance to impress. Leandro Castellanos carried at least partial blame for both of South Korea’s goals in Colombia’s 1-2 defeat, but Jose Fernando Cuadrado made one excellent save and looked assured under limited pressure in keeping a clean sheet in the subsequent 4-0 win over China.
Back-up at full-back is a real area of concern. Stefan Medina and the converted central defender William Tesillo were both poor against South Korea and look inadequate options. Jefferson Lerma, a midfielder by trade, did his chances no harm by providing plenty of attacking thrust in the win over China, but he was guilty of a couple of defensive slip-ups that underlined his inexperience in the position. There are few other viable candidates.
Indeed, given Colombia’s surfeit of central defenders, it is perhaps surprising that Pekerman has not trialled a formation with three at the back. Especially so considering how well Cuadrado would be suited to a wing-back role.
One area where he has been willing to try out new alignments is in midfield. He needs to find a way of getting the best out of James Rodriguez against opponents who set up in a deep block. Colombia are a side who always function well on the counter-attack, with sufficient speed and trickery to move forward at pace, but against more defensive opponents there is a tendency for Rodriguez to get involved in areas where he is unable to be decisive.
Pekerman has suggested that he views Rodriguez more as a forward than a player to drop back and organise play. With this in mind, he trialled Giovanni Moreno in a deeper midfield role against South Korea, charged with progressing the ball through that zone so that Rodriguez could focus on making the difference in the final third. But it didn’t really work out in possession, while Moreno’s lack of dynamism also caused some defensive problems.
Add that relative failure to the need to pick through a multitude of similarly talented wide and centre-forward options and the likely ban Cardona will receive for his unacceptable racist gesture against South Korea and it is clear that there is still much for Pekerman to ponder and puzzle out in the build-up to Russia 2018.