It’s a bit early in the season for high-stake match-ups and complicated point calculus, but never too early for good soccer: here’s the Week 3 Preview of Colombia’s top league.
The first game of the third round is the most interesting, and one of only two that already has serious late-season implications. Patriotas travel to the General Santander Stadium to face home side Cucuta Deportivo Friday in a match-up of the first and third teams respectively in the race toward relegation, and Huila plays host to Quindio on Saturday in the match-up of the second and fourth. So much attention tends to get placed on the top of the table drama that it’s easy to miss how fun things can get at the bottom, where there’s slightly more desperation, and slightly less order.
Whether the battles of the worst teams in the league will be the most entertaining games of the week or its most thoroughly boring will depend entirely on how Cucuta, Patriotas, Huila and Quindio decide to approach things — do they play to win, or play not to lose? With only a total of two points separating Patriotas from Quindio in the relegation zone, none of the four teams can afford to drop points. But with only a handful of bottom-table match-ups all tournament, none of them can really afford to leave points on the board, either. Tying in this case doesn’t help anyone, but it doesn’t hurt anyone either, and that might be enough to convince the sides to come out conservatively.
Still, there’s good reason to expect good matches.
Cucuta is coming off a strong showing last week against Quindio. Were it not for a blocked penalty in the 83rd minute, they would have come away with a much-needed victory, and you can expect them to want to put on a show for their home fans Friday, who stormed the field last season, costing the team points, when their play got frustratingly bad to watch.
And Patriotas will have their own motivation to open up play. Last week was their second tie in a row, and while they played well in their opening game against Chico, last week’s 1-1 draw at home to Pasto was what the manager called a “clumsy” result. An injury Wednesday to Cucuta’s primary goalscorer Milton Rodriguez means that a single goal for Patriotas could be enough to steal three points on the road.
Coaches and players from both sides have stressed the importance of a win in the media week, and with the margin of error set at virtually zero, a moment of clarity could be enough to decide relegation for either side.
The situation is much the same in the other dramatic bottom-fixture matchup of the week. Huila and Quindio are currently second and fourth in the relegation bracket, and Saturday’s game in the Guillermo Plazas Alcid stadium in Neiva, Huila has all the same pressures surrounding it.
The home team put on a promising performance in the Postobon League opening in a high-scoring loss to defending champions Atletico Nacional. And even in their scoreless loss to Itagui last weekend, they played well defensively and created a few good chances toward the end of either half. After two weeks of respectable showings against teams at the top of the table, expect Huila to come out strong at home, hungry for a win a game it will feel well-prepared for.
Quindio, meanwhile, has yet to score a goal in the tournament, and got thoroughly dominated last week by Cucuta in the only game it has put up points in. If they can’t find a way to put something together this week against Huila, they might as well begin watching film of the Colombian Segundo in preparation for next season.
At the other end of the standings, the early table leaders have tough match-ups heading into Week 3.
First place Itagui has the unenviable prospect of playing away against league runner-up Sante Fe in Bogota and early goal leader Silvio Gonzalez.
Head coach for the home side Wilson Gutierrez was not shy about voicing his disappointment after last week’s tie with Nacional, a rematch of last season’s finals. He felt his side dominated the second half and should have come away with a win. He dismissed another disappointing tie in the opening week as a letdown in focus after the difficult end to the last season, but said he does not like the direction his team is headed early on and planned to up the intensity in practice this week.
With two draws against the two worst teams in the league to open the tournament, Itagui is first but unconvincingly so. A tough road game this week should give Colombian fans a better idea of what they can expect from the Antioquian side.
The other league leader, Junior, has looked definitively better. They’ve won two games handedly, with spells of truly compelling play highlighting a gifted attacking front led by winger Michael Ortega and striker Luis Carlos Ruiz, who has two goals in two games so far in the tournament. Consistency has been an early concern in the local press, though, and this week they’ll be traveling to play Chico in the Estadio La Independencia, a tough team to play in a notoriously difficult venue to visit in.
The last match-up to watch is Saturday night’s Club Cali at Pasto. The teams are even at 4 points a piece, but Cali has looked like one of the early favorites overall. It should be interesting to see how coach Leonel Alvarez handles a wretched spell of luck that saw three of his starters come down with injuries last week in what was something of a bloodbath against Chico.