After a narrow win at home against Ecuador Friday, Colombia flew to Montevideo this weekend, where they are preparing to take on defending South American champions Uruguay on Tuesday in their third-to-last World Cup Qualifier.
James Rodriguez scored a scrappy goal in the 30th minute off of a Radamel Falcao rebound, and that, along with an errant penalty kick from Ecuador’s Walter Ayovi, was enough to seal an important three points for the Colombian side in what was an ugly, storm-filled evening of soccer in Barranquilla.
With three Qualifiers left, and only one point away from mathematically securing a top-four placement in their Qualifying group, Colombia is virtually assured a bid to the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro — as it now stands, Colombia is guaranteed at least a playoff against the bottom side from the Asia bracket. But despite all-night parties across the country Friday, the ‘Cafeteros’ are not interested in celebrating quite yet.
“We are not ready to start singing,” said team captain Mario Yepes, speaking to reporters this weekend. “We are still not in the Cup, and even if we were, we are not going to stop playing until we have finished our Qualifiers. Right now we are not thinking about the Ecuador game. We are preparing for Uruguay, and that is all we are thinking about.”
Uruguay, meanwhile, is sitting at fifth in the qualifying bracket, even with a 2-1 win against Peru on Friday. Oscar Tabarez’s side will be desperate for a win in Montevideo, especially heading into a home stretch that features games against Ecuador, also fighting for a spot in the Cup, and group co-leaders Argentina.
It won’t help matters that the ‘Celeste’ will have to play Tuesday without key-playmaker Diego Forlan and three of their starting defenders — Martin Caceres on the left, and Diego Godin and team-captain Diego Lugano in the middle — due to injuries. This against a Colombian team with one of the more dynamic attacks in international soccer.
It’s unclear what, if anything, Jose Pekerman will do to take advantage of a decimated Uruguayan back line. Colombia came out with a well-balanced approach Friday, using the more defensive-minded Carlos Sanchez instead of Freddy Guarin in the midfield, and pushing Macnelly Torres up into a staggered 4-2-2-2. Poor conditions bogged down play from both teams, but the Colombians still showed their attacking class during spurts, even with a relatively conservative lineup.
Juan Cuadrado was one of two positive substitutions made over the course of Friday’s match, and it’s likely he will be featured as a starter Tuesday if Pekerman decides to go with a more assertive squad. Cuadrado came in for Abel Aguilar early in the second half to provide a stronger attacking presence on the right side, and with wingback Pablo Armaro out for Tuesday’s contest on accumulated yellow cards, it’s possible Pekerman will work Cuadrado in as a starter in the back-line to keep up Colombia’s aggressive wing play.
The status of Radamel Falcao’s right ankle was in doubt throughout the buildup to Friday’s game, after the Colombian superstar turned it in a game with his club-side, Monaco, over the previous weekend. ‘El Tigre’ started and played all 90 minutes Friday, but looked somewhat subdued, going long stretches of play without touching the ball, and failing to convert a number of clear chances in the box.
Teofilo Gutierrez will be a continuing question-mark for Pekerman’s side. The River Plate man started alongside Falcao Friday, but gave up possession easily after failing to convert a number of good opportunities early in the game, and came out toward the end of the second half to make way for Jackson Martinez. Many in the Colombian media were already clamoring for Martinez to get a starting spot next to Falcao, and with the Uruguayans relying on a second-string back line, Martinez may get a chance to reproduce his excellent club form on the international stage.
As for Colombia’s defense, the return of captain Mario Yepes and fellow centerback Cristian Zapata from suspension should bring stability against a potent Uruguayan attack in Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani, and relieve pressure from keeper David Ospina, who was called on to make several heroic saves Friday, even against an undermanned Ecuadorian side. Pekerman will have to do some shuffling to accomodate Armaro’s absence on the left side, and decide whether to go with attacking pace in Juan Cuadrado, or dependability with longtime fixture Luis Perea, who typically plays in the middle, but has filled in previously on the outside during his long career on the national team.
A tie Tuesday would guarantee Colombia’s first invitation to the World Cup since France 1998, and a win would put the ‘Tricolor’, already tied for first place, in strong contention to take the group outright.