It’s been 24 years since Colombia last appeared in a World Cup elimination round, and a win Saturday against Uruguay would take “Los Cafeteros” further than they’ve ever made it in soccer’s biggest tournament. So, you know, no pressure, or anything.
Sooner or later in this preview, we’re going to have to talk about Luis Suarez’s teeth, but before we do, let’s just take a moment to appreciate how well Colombia has played up until this point.
The 3-0 coming out party against Greece. The mad 2-1 thriller against the Ivory Coast. The 4-1 reserve-squad stomp out of Japan, which sent Los Cafeteros cartwheeling into their first round of 16 since Italy 1990.
In a World Cup well on its way to becoming a showcase for Latin American soccer, Colombia has arguably been the most impressive team of the entire tournament. The show may be taking place in Brazil — much to the chagrin of a good many Brazilians — but so far, it’s been Colombia teaching the world to dance.
Group C was never supposed to be the toughest in the tournament, but it was hardly the weakest, either, and “La Tricolor” won big and, more importantly, won well, with just the right mix of grit and flair. Ultimately, that’s all you can ever ask for, and more than any of the glory-starved crazies back here in coffee country could have expected after at least a decade of eating cynicism.
Colombia has defended effectively, if not always convincingly, and put up the goals it needed to, even when the chances that produced them were more opportunism than artistry. Los Cafeteros have been impressive specifically because of how unremarkable their aspirations are and how efficiently they’ve realized them.
This is a team that passes well but with purpose and defends with discipline but not at the expense of the attack. Looking just at the scorelines, it’s easy to let the imagination run. But focus and execution are what have made Colombian soccer exciting again, and when you hold the pressure and the stakes up against the Pablo Armero choreography, it’s nice to know that even when Los Cafeteros are celebrating, there’s still a System behind the success.
That’s going to be important against Uruguay.
In what has to be one of the weirdest stories in professional sports history, Luis Suarez, possibly the third best player in the world at the moment, will be out for Saturday’s game, suspended for at least four months and nine FIFA competitions by soccer’s international governing body for his third documented incident of having bitten another human being during a soccer match. (That may actually work out better for Suarez. Mario Alberto Yepes looks like the kind of guy who might rip out a chunk of your spleen if you tried to bite him.) But horseface or no, Uruguay is a dangerous team, physical and aggressive and tournament-tested.
Fernando Muslera has grown into a steady figure for the Uruguayans, manning goal behind a back line that is rough through the middle in Diego Godin and Diego Lugano and athletic on the outside with Maxi Pereira on the right and Alvaro Pereira on the left. If there’s a weakness to be had in that defense, it’s the pace of the centerbacks, but given the likelihood that Colombian head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman stays with the apparently really good in practice Teofilo Gutierrez — even after Jackson Martinez broke out with a brace against Japan on Tuesday — don’t expect Colombia to exploit that advantage fully, barring a loping run out of the middle from Victor Ibarbo.
Instead, Los Cafeteros are going to have to find space through the midfield, which is going to be tough, because the Uruguayan midfield exists almost solely to chase people. Cristian “Cebolla” Rodriguez is a threat on the left wing, but his work ethic will keep him busy trying to keep up with the speed of Juan Guillermo Cuadrado and Camilo Zuñiga, who have produced some of Colombia’s best spells combining down the right, especially when they involve James Rodriguez drifting over from the middle.
On the left, Martin Caceres is more of a converted fullback than a pure winger, but he can get deep enough down the sideline to send in crosses to Edinson Cavani, and that is where Uruguay is going to look for production with its key goal scorer muzzled for the foreseeable future. The communication between Yepes and Cristian Zapata will need to be good, because Cavani’s pace could pose serious problems for the middle of the Colombian defense. If the PSG celebrity purchase can get Yepes in particular isolated on one of his signature diagonal runs, Lazio’s Alvaro Gonzalez or the ageless Diego Forlan are going to have plenty of space to play him through.
All in all, Colombia and Uruguay are very well balanced, and appropriately enough, the teams split their South American qualifying matchup, with Colombia blowing out “La Celeste” 4-0 in Barranquilla and then losing 0-2 away in Montevideo toward the end of the campaign. Uruguay’s speed and physicality on the wings will mitigate Colombia’s strongest attacking options, and Los Cafeteros will need to be careful about forcing the issue with numbers forward.
For Colombia, this game is going to fall heavily on the treacherous left foot of James Rodriguez, which, if you’re a Tricolor fan, is probably right where you want it to fall, anyway. If a noticeably lifeless first half against Japan Tuesday accomplished anything, it was establishing to just what extent the entire Colombian offense is dependent on James to function. It really is a shame Jackson probably won’t be starting, because you can see the residual chemistry between them from their days slaughtering opposing nets for Porto. But Fredy Guarin, at least, should have earned himself a spot over the walking liability that is Abel Aguilar, and that will free up James to stay high and open up quick for the counter.
Those are the opportunities that will decide what promises to be an extremely gutsy, fast-paced game for a Colombian side whose natural inclination seems to be to run teams out of the stadium. That’s going to be difficult to do against Uruguay, and trying will invariably lead to chances on the other end for La Celeste. At this point, though, that’s a tradeoff you’ll take if you’re a Colombia fan. As Carlos Sanchez recently put it, “Colombia knows how to attack and be attacked.” Winning at the World Cup is always a matter of both.