Moscow, June 29 (IANS) World Cup quarter-finalists in Brazil four years ago, Colombia have done what was expected of them by progressing to the knockout stage in Russia. In fact, a cursory glance at the final Group H standings might suggest that it has been a stress-free journey so far; Colombia topped the group with six points, two more than second-placed Japan.
But the South American team’s passage to the round of 16 has been far from plain sailing. The Cafeteros made a disastrous start to their campaign when midfielder Carlos Sanchez was sent off in the third minute of their opener against Japan, who took advantage of their numerical advantage to win 2-1 in Saransk, reports Xinhua news agency.
The result left Colombia needing two wins from their last two group matches and that is exactly what they have done; first trouncing Poland 3-0 and then grinding out a 1-0 win over Senegal on Thursday.
But while it was a mightily impressive display against the Poles, the same cannot be said of the laboured victory over Senegal.
Which begs the question: can Jose Pekerman’s team progress to the last eight and beyond?
The answer could depend on the availability of their playmaker James Rodriguez, whose fitness is the cause of growing concern in Colombia’s camp.
The 26-year-old suffered a reoccurrence of a leg muscle problem against Senegal and was taken off before halftime. His absence was clearly evident as Colombia struggled to foray forward with fluency despite the best efforts of Juan Quintero and Juan Cuadrado, the team’s only other creative midfielders.
As a consequence, Radamel Falcao struggled for supply and was often drawn deep in a bid to win the ball.
With only five days until their next match against England, Colombia will be sweating on the fitness of their influential No. 10, who won the Golden Boot four years ago with six goals.
But even if he does play, it is doubtful the Bayern Munich star will be anywhere near fully fit.
While Colombia’s squad has a plethora of central defensive midfielders, it is short on attacking playmakers, meaning there will be a greater onus on Quintero to deliver.
Which brings us to the good news for Pekerman and his men. Quintero, who has struggled with form and fitness in recent seasons, is arguably enjoying his best run of form in Colombia’s national team.
The 25-year-old, currently on loan at River Plate from Porto, scored from a free-kick against Japan and provided a sumptuous assist for Radamel Falcao against Poland. Most of the team’s best attacking moves against Senegal came via his prodigious left foot.
Another positive for Pekerman has been the performances of centre-backs Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez.
Mina has endured a frustrating 2018 after his January move to Barcelona from Brazil’s Palmeiras. The 23-year-old made only a handful of starts in his first five months with the Blaugrana and was an unused substitute for Colombia against Japan.
Recalled to the starting lineup against Poland, Mina headed in the team’s first goal and he again found the net by nodding in Colombia’s winner on Thursday from a corner.
All the while, Mina has not forgotten his defensive duties as Colombia have kept two successive clean sheets.
Sanchez has arguably been even more impressive. The Tottenham player is showing himself to be a calming influence on his teammates here with his clever positioning, composure in possession and well-timed tackles.
In goal, David Ospina is proving that a lack of regular playing time at club level is no barrier to performing well on football’s highest stage. The Arsenal shot-stopper has not been tested too often in the past two matches but has done the job when Colombia have needed him, such as late in Thursday’s match when he denied M’Baye Niang with a fine reflex save.
One suspects that Ospina, Sanchez and Mina will need to raise the bar even further to quell the threat posed by Harry Kane and company on Tuesday.