Thursday’s World Cup matchup against the Ivory Coast will be a very different kind of challenge for Colombia, which came out strong during its much-awaited return to soccer’s biggest stage with a 3-0 win over Greece last Saturday.
After a painful 16-year absence from the World Cup, it took just five minutes of play for “Los Cafeteros” to find the net in the Group C opener.
Left back Pablo Armero got the scoring started for Colombia with a driven one-timer from the top of the box. Teofilo Gutierrez followed with a 58th-minute volley off a designed corner kick flick-on, and wunderkind James Rodriguez iced the game — and a “crack” performance — with a well-placed strike in the 92′ set up by a back-heel from Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, who also assisted on the first goal and did just about everything possible to run the Greek left into the ground.
There was one defensive lapse in particular that gifted Greece a clear chance in front of goal — a header that went ringing off the top bar — but for the most part, Colombia dominated the game, if not necessarily possession. For the 45,000 yellow shirts who made the trip to Brazil’s Belo Horizonte and the millions more watching back in Colombia, Saturday was the cathartic equivalent of a Pablo Armero dance troupe. (For the 26 Colombians killed, jailed, or hospitalized during the “celebrations,” the catharsis could have benefited from a less violent choreography.)
Things are not likely to be so frantic against the Ivory Coast Thursday — or at least, Colombian fans should hope that they are aren’t.
Whereas Greece was the consensus softest team in the group — a defensive shell with a shaky defense and occasional notions of a counter — the Ivory Coast has one of the more physically dominant sides in the tournament. Strong enough to disrupt Los Cafeteros on defense and explosive enough to punish them on the other end, The Elephants are a skilled, direct bunch as like to bull through you as whip in a ball around you.
There are big holes in the Ivorian defense for James to operate in, and look for Victor Ibarbo to find space for himself running out of the midfield, as well. Colombia was at its best Saturday — as it so often is — working combination play up the right with Cuadrado and Juan Camilo Zuñiga, and it should be interesting to see how much freedom Pekerman gives Zuñiga and Armero to test the tracking of the Ivorian midfield and exploit its tendency to over-commit going forward and dive in hard on tackles.
Indeed, it would not be surprising to see Los Cafeteros put up another three goals or more against this Ivory Coast team, and therein lies the danger. For a team like Colombia, which likes to attack in spurts, the chances to get forward are going to present themselves early and often. But the Ivorians would prefer nothing more than for the game to devolve into a frantic back-and-forth slugfest and crazed test of endurance.
The Elephants scored twice in the span of two minutes against Japan Saturday night off a pair of thundering headers, and that sort of breakout potential will be there whenever Colombia attacks with numbers.
Colombia’s best approach Thursday would be to keep the Ivorians away from the ball and rely on a close passing game to break down individual spaces and open up runs in behind the Ivorian backline. this will be a good test of Jose Nestor Pekerman’s much-toted System as possession needs to be much better from Los Cafeteros if they hope to control the rate of play against a dynamic Ivorian side that advances the ball quickly.
A lineup change could benefit Colombia in that area. Abel Aguilar, solid though he is defending, adds little in the way of security against a pacey Ivorian attack. Atletico Nacional’s Alexander Mejia, who came in for Aguilar Saturday, would do more to sure up the defense against the break, and Inter Milan’s Fredy Guarin gives Colombia more two-way versatility should Los Cafeteros look to pounce on a counter of their own.
Defensively, Colombia will have the unenviable task of neutralizing Yaya Toure, a merciless one-man stampede of creativity and end-to-end power through which the Elephants’ entire offense runs. The Ivory Coast relies on Toure for defense more so than does his club team, Machester City, so the best way to deal with him and his loping charges out of the midfield is to make the Ivorians play with bodies behind the ball. Toure will leave big gaps whenever he does decide to push forward, but again, the Colombians will have to be patient about when they choose to capitalize.
The aging Didier Drogba and Brazilian-styled “Gervinho” are the other major threats for the Ivorians, along with Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony, who scored on a typically vicious header against Japan.
Drogba didn’t start Saturday, but the Ivory Coast certainly looked like they needed him to, and containing the legendary goalscorer will be a matter of concentration and luck for a well-sized Colombian centerback pairing of Mario Alberto Yepes and Cristian Zapata, who looked tighter than they ever have against Greece, and will have to contend with aggressively delivered crosses whenever the Elephants find width. With Gervinho switching to either side, Armero and Zuñiga will try to get up the wings and make the shifty striker work on defense.
Colombia should win Thursday, because Colombia should win every game in this group stage. But against the most volatile team in their immediate schedule and the only one that can compete with Los Cafeteros physically, winning might mean keeping things as boring as possible for the rest of us.