Colombian national team coach Jose Pekerman announced his 26-man roster Thursday, ahead of the second-to-last round of World Cup Qualifiers.
The “tricolor” play Ecuador on Septermber 6th, at the National Stadium in Barranquilla, before flying to Montevideo the following week for their matchup against defending South American champions Uruguay. Two wins, or a win and a tie, would virtually secure Colombia an invitation to the 2014 World Cup, its first since 1998.
A recent friendly against Serbia in Barcelona gave Pekerman the chance to experiment with his roster, but ahead of an important round of qualifiers against two of the top sides in the table, it’s fair to expect the Argentine will bring what he feels is his strongest starting lineup.
David Ospina has been Colombia’s rock throughout its qualifying campaign. In his most recent start, he almost single-handedly kept the Colombian side in the game, setting the stage for a late game-winning header from Freddy Guarin.
Faryd Mondragon is a force in the Colombian league, but the Atletico Cali captain hasn’t gotten many starts for the national team, as Pekerman seems to be sticking with Ospina going forward.
Colombia will be without starting centerbacks Mario Yepes and Cristian Zapata against Ecuador, both of whom are out on accumulated yellow cards. Carlos Valdes and Aquivaldo Mosquera started against Serbia and played well considering their lack of time on the field together. They are a possible replacement pairing for the Ecuador game, as Mosquera particularly has been playing impressive club soccer, but longtime national team fixture Luis Amaranto Perea is another strong option in the middle if Peckerman decides to go with experience.
Perea has played on the outside as well, as has Pablo Armero, but the listing of Juan Guillermo Cuadrado as a back in the charts is an interesting move from Pekerman. Cuadrado has been a standout recently, both in the Italian league for Florentina and for Colombia in the recent round of friendlies. While Pekerman has often used him in the midfield, Colombia has more depth to work with in its midfield than its defense, so moving Cuadrado back could be an intelligent way of maximizing talent.
Camilo Zuñiga hasn’t found playing time in Rafa Benitez’s new system in Napoli, but the young lefty has been a strong attacking force for Colombia, and is a good fit for Peckerman, who has given both him and Cuadrado free reign down the wings coming out of the back third.
Despite being excluded from club play after making a recent jump to the French Ligue 1, Abel Aguilar has been the heart of Colombia’s defensive presence in the middle of the pitch. Along with Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin, Aguilar has been a constant starter for Pekerman’s side.
Macnelly Torres has been consistently dangerous leading the attack, but Pekerman has leaned toward James Rodriguez. The attacking midfield position has been one of the more hotly contested on the Colombian roster, but Rodriguez brings slightly more to bear in terms of playmaking, and his time spent playing alongside both Jackson Martinez and Radamel Falcao up top makes him a logical choice.
Pekerman likes to use three midfielders ahead of the defense, with Aguilar sitting back as a ball-winner, and Guarin’s flexibility playing on either side has opened things up some for Pekerman with the last midfield spot.
Elkin Soto has been an important figure on the national team in the past, known for scoring big goals from the left. Carlos Alberto Sanchez, called “The Rock” in Colombia for his tackling prowess, however, is also a solid defensive choice for a team with plenty of attacking power, and outside backs who like to get forward.
Juan Fernando Quintero could be another interesting choice. He typically likes to play more in a central playmaker role, but with Zuñiga and Cuadrado working the sidelines he could stay relatively central behind James Rodriguez without throwing off the team’s balance.
If Pekerman decides not to use him in the back, on the other hand, Cuadrado would be an almost sure starter in the right midfield role, with Guarin taking over on the left.
Colombia has easily one of the top attacking cores in the world.
Radamel Falcao is eligible again, after seeing to the birth of his daughter earlier this month, and is a definite starter on an attacking roster with very few certainties.
Pekerman likes to use Teofilo Gutierrez behind Falcao because of his work ethic and physical presence, but Luis Fernando Muriel has a similar pedigree and has been on a tear scoring goals for Udinese.
Meanwhile, Carlos Bacca has been a regular sub, and has taken advantage of his opportunities to make important plays for the team. Peckerman, nevertheless, hasn’t shown much interest in utilizing him as a starter.
Jackson Martinez, who it now seems will stay in Porto after a long, rumor-filled off-season, is a popular pick among fans for the second starting striker spot. On paper, the paring of him and Falcao seems too good to pass up, and Martinez has scored in each of his three games so far this season for Porto, continuing his truly world class form from earlier this year.
Pekerman, however, seems to be skeptical about his ability to play next to Falcao. Martinez’s starts have come mostly alongside Gutierrez or Bacca, and as well as he’s played for club and country, he apparently still has to prove to Pekerman that he’s the right fit for the team’s system.
Whether Martinez will likely depend on other choices in the roster. If Rodriguez starts, for example, it would be hard to keep Martinez off the pitch, as the two combined beautifully over the course of last season.