It all starts up front for the notably top-heavy Colombian national team, heading into its first World Cup appearance since France 1998.
There are not a lot of sides in the tournament that could watch an elite talent like Radamel Falcao buckle over his own knee and still stand a realistic chance of advancing deep into the tournament. But even without “El Tigre” there to prey on hapless goalkeepers, Colombia still has a number of good options chained up out back in the kennel.
Adrian Ramos is the last resort in a striker core you would do well to keep away from small children and the elderly. And whenever your fourth-string attacking threat is four goals away from claiming the German Bundesliga scoring title, you’ve got to feel pretty good about your prospects.
The soon-to-be Borussia Dortmund man is long, pacey, and deceptively solid on the ball, especially in the air, where he scored some of his more emphatic goals this season. His time on the field has been limited for “Los Cafeteros,” but in Germany he’s shown the sort of natural instinct for spacing and ruthless spite in the box you would look for in a classic #9.
Carlos Bacca is another large specimen with whom the word “monster” is frequently associated. For all his size and strength, though, Bacca is probably more comfortable facing up away from goal than any of his counterparts.
Even as the target man for his new club team, Bacca likes to drift toward the midfield and build play. The passing ability and skill on the ball he brought to an already dynamic attack at Sevilla FC were crucial in the Andalusian side’s 2014 run to the Europa League title. But Bacca hasn’t quite found that same chemistry with Colombia’s playmakers, and Pekerman has been reluctant to use him as a lone striker when he goes with five in the midfield.
In that formation, Jackson Martinez stands out as Colombia’s best pure attacking presence. His production dropped a bit this year — which is to say, he scored 30 goals in 50 games instead of 30 in 40 — but Martinez continues to be an absolute force for Porto, where he has scored in 66% of his appearances, won the domestic league title, and made it to the elimination rounds of the Champions League.
If the rumors can be believed, Martinez is already being courted by clubs from England to Italy and will soon become one of the summer’s top signings. The raw power and complete lack of regard for opposing nets that have driven up a $50 million price tag for his services in Europe, however, have yet to translate to the international stage.
For whatever reason, Martinez doesn’t seem confident wearing a Tricolor uniform. He still collects the ball and holds up play better than anyone else on the roster, and but especially as of late, he’s taken to coughing up chances he usually buries and playing on a sort of uninterested autopilot that makes it increasingly difficult for “Cha Cha Cha” loyalists to argue he should be starting.
It’s hard to say whether Martinez’s lackluster performance in Colombian yellow is the cause or result of the lack of faith head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman seems to have in the Quibdo-native, but at this point it hardly matters. With two days to go before the team’s first World Cup match in 16 years, Teofilo Gutierrez has somehow supplanted the bigger, stronger, faster, and more skillful Martinez for the starting spot. In Colombia’s most recent pre-Cup friendly, Jackson didn’t even suit up.
Nothing Teo has done on the field for Los Cafeteros has justified the special place he’s apparently found for himself in Pekerman’s grand design. He’s played good club ball for a resurgent River Plate down in Buenos Aires, showing a decisiveness on the ball and poise in the box that have been noticeably absent from his international play.
For Colombia, he’s been inconsistent at best — disappearing at least as often as Jackson — and has blown clear chances in essentially every way imaginable.
If Medellin‘s more cynical cab drivers can be believed, Pekerman is either biased toward Argentine league players or — in what would have to be one of the weirdest conspiracies in international soccer’s admittedly sordid history — working closely with Teo and Diego Maradona to sabotage Colombia’s hopes at making it deep in the tournament.
Either way, it seems like Teo it is for now, the only question remaining is whether Colombia will come out with two up top or leave the alleged traitor by himself on an island. Gutierrez doesn’t inspire much confidence on his own, but then again, he also doesn’t combine nearly as well with anyone else on the team as Pekerman seems to think he does.
If Colombia stacks the midfield, look for Cagliari’s Victor Ibarbo to line up just behind him. If Pekerman decides to go with a second striker, Carlos Bacca would be the logical choice, both because of his natural preference for facing up to goal and because of the familiarity he and Gutierrez have, dating back to their days coming up together at Barranquilla’s Atletico Junior.
Starting Teofilo Gutierrez up top is probably the best way of imposing mediocrity on an otherwise truly dynamic attacking front for Colombia, but Pekerman will at least not lack for options once in the likely event that his pet favorite starts mailing in games on the biggest stage in international soccer.