In front of a packed home crowd at Barranquilla’s Metropolitan Stadium Friday, Colombia will have a chance to qualify for its first World Cup since 1998.
Standing between the ‘Tricolor’ and Brazil 2014 is a surging Chile team, which arrived in Barranquilla Wednesday, for a 5pm EST start to the final round of both teams’ World Cup Qualifying campaigns.
With two games left, Colombia is one point away from an automatic bid to Rio, and Chile needs points out of its next two games as well in order to sure up its own qualifying campaign.
But whether Colombia can lock up a Cup birth on Friday will depend more on how Jose Pekerman decides to play than anything Chile bring to the table.
After reaching an all-time best #3 international FIFA ranking earlier this summer, Colombia looked somewhat lethargic in the last round of Qualifiers.
A 1-0 home win against Ecuador came off a James Rodriguez tap-in, in a game where ‘los Cafeteros’ struggled to assert themselves, despite 60 minutes of man-up play and the ravenous support of a sold-out home crowd.
In Montevideo, a team that only needed a draw to make it to through to the World Cup Finals played a lot like a team that only needed a draw to make it through to the World Cup finals, and didn’t start sending men forward until it had already fallen into a two-goal hole.
Hard not to classify
At this point, it would take something of a mathematical disaster for Colombia to fall out of the top four in the group standings, and even in that case, a playoff against the delegate from the Asia group is the worst possible outcome.
And with the safety blanket firmly in place, how Colombia comes out against Chile will be the best indicator of what kind of team this actually is going forward.
Does Jose Pekerman play for a tie, against a team in Chile that will be more than happy to sit back, like Uruguay, and wait for “El Mago” Valdivia to play Alexis Sanchez through? Or does he take his insurance policy into account and let loose the dogs, like everyone in Colombia has always wanted him to?
Ready to attack
Pekerman is a strong tactician who has the respect of his players, but if there has ever been an opportunity to let one of the best attacking teams in the world on paper be one of the best attacking teams in the world on the field, it’s now.
With Carlos Zuniga out with a leg injury, Colombia will already be short on width. Does Pekerman play Amaranto Perea, the old war horse, or let a Stefan Medina or a Santiago Arias push forward down the wing?
Abel Aguilar has come out early in both of the last two games, making way for more dynamic midfielders like Juan Cuadrado and Freddy Guarin: does Pekerman keep things defensive to start, or come out with pressure on a narrow three-back Chilean defense?
With his club team, Porto, Jackson Martinez has continued to make every case in the world for a starting spot next to Falcao, while Teofilo Gutierrez has been mostly absent in recent starts for the national team. Does Pekerman continue to insist on a defensive counterweight to ‘El Tigre’, or let two of the most potent offensive forces in international soccer have a go alongside one another?
Whatever happens Friday in Barranquilla, Colombia is virtually guaranteed a ticket to Rio. How they show up will be more about philosophy than results.