A 2-0 loss on the road to a desperate, and world-class, Uruguayan side is no cause for panic for the Colombian national team or its fans. But the result does highlight certain questions head coach Jose Nestor Pekerman will have to answer heading into the last round of Wold Cup Qualifiers and, presumably, the World Cup itself.
Coming into Tuesday’s game, Colombia only needed one point to guarantee a spot in Brazil 2014, and Uruguay, missing three of its starting defenders and clinging to a place in the classification bracket, could not afford to concede goals early. What many hoped would be an exciting show from two of South America’s most deadly attacking sides started out a tactical stalemate.
Colombia had the better of the first 45 minutes of play, forcing Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera to make several difficult saves early on. But neither team was particularly eager to commit men forward, and there was little in the way of possession in either attacking third.
The chance of the half came when a through ball from Freddy Guarin released Radamel Falcao in the Uruguayan box, but Falcao’s shot went just wide of the post, and the teams went into the half even at 0-0.
The second period was all Uruguay.
A rocket off the crossbar from Edison Cavani in the first minute of play set an aggressive tone for the ‘Celeste,’ who pressured high for the duration of the half and attacked replacement outside back John Stefan Medina down the left side.
The Colombians seemed content to play for the draw, and it wasn’t until the 77th minute that a frustrated Uruguayan side broke through, when a ball whipped in from Maxi Pereira split the Colombian defense to find Edison Cavani, who rose over two defenders and tucked away a class header into the far post.
The goal shot some life into Jose Pekerman’s side, prompting the second Colombian substitution of the match. Three minutes later, however, Uruguay’s Christian Stuani hammered home an open chance after a scramble in the box left Colombian keeper David Ospina frozen at the near post.
Uruguay went on to finish out a strong defensive effort, as Colombia was unable to create chances, even after bringing on Jackson Martinez toward the closing minutes.
With two games left in South American group play and a four-point lead on the fourth and fifth place teams, Colombia is still virtually assured a bid to Brazil 2014. But two unconvincing offensive displays in a row have left some to question why one of the most dynamic teams in the world has been taking such a conservative approach to its soccer.
The motivations behind Pekerman’s consistent use of Teofilo Gutierrez alongside Falcao has been something of a mystery throughout the Qualifying campaign. Gutierrez has had his moments, including a double against Uruguay in the previous home leg. But Jackson Martinez has been nothing short of spectacular in club play over the past year, and fans are clamoring to see Colombia’s latest international sensation get a chance to play next to its already consecrated superstar, ‘El Tigre’ Falcao.
Martinez has gotten onto the field in both of the last two games, but too late to build any sort of rhythm. While Gutierrez played decently in last Friday’s crucial home win against Ecuador, he was largely nonexistent in Montevideo Tuesday, and has been ineffectual at best during the last several rounds of Qualifiers.
The midfield has been a bigger problem for Colombia, though. Pekerman has taken advantage of his depth to shuffle things around from game to game, but the unit has lacked a fixed structure, even with James Rodriguez’s solidification as the team’s playmaker.
The injury to Macnelly Torres is partly to blame for what was sloppy possession play coming through the center of the Colombian midfield Tuesday, but Pekerman has been inconsistent in his formation, using both a 1-2-1, as he did Tuesday, with Carlos Sanchez as the lone holding midfielder, or a 2-2, like he did against Ecuador, with Abel Aguilar and Sanchez sitting next to one another in front of the defense.
Freddy Guarin and Juan Cuadrado have both been effective going forward, but they have had to compete for playing time, as Pekerman has drifted toward the more conservative Aguilar-Sanchez pairing.
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s loss, Pekerman expressed a well-earned confidence in his team’s direction. With 26 points, a young Colombian side is well-poised for an invitation to the 2014 World Cup, where many have already predicted them to be one of the early favorites.
But a string of uneventful games, and a continuing trend toward conservative soccer has many fans wondering if Colombia’s best option going forward isn’t to do more going forward.