Falcao, James Rodriguez hope to take Colombia further in 2018
NOTE: This is translated from an original piece for ESPN Argentina.
One hundred days before Brazil 2014, Colombia's World Cup hopes were dashed by an injury to the team's biggest star, Radamel Falcao. The Tricolor was preparing their World Cup return after 12 long years but the wait was tinged with anguish. There was even speculation about the fatigue that would weigh upon them with or without the player from Santa Marta, who was finally forced to withdraw from contention. But Jose Pekerman's team were able to leave behind the pain of El Tigre's loss and responded in each and every match, delivering their best performances in national team history.
Today, four years later, there are no major concerns about the squad that will try to repeat that unforgettable campaign.
One hundred days before Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off the world's greatest tournament, Colombia have all their players fit and ready. Pekerman won't face any obstacles when it comes to choosing the group of players that will carry the flag for the growth of Colombian soccer. It is true that their performance in the final rounds of qualifying left more doubts than certainties, but it is also true that this group of players already knows what it is like to play under pressure against the best in the world. That experience is always a bonus.
It is easy to say that in terms of individual players, Colombia are better now than they were four years ago. They have two young but seasoned center-backs, a strong personality and a great future ahead. They have full-backs with continuity and ability to attack and defend, midfielders who know their roles and exactly what their coach wants from them, and forwards on a positive run of form.
Individually, there are no concerns but most of their recent struggles have been collective in nature. So that will be the staff's task during these next 100 days: recovering the team's identity.
There are very few matches left before the World Cup begins. Only two friendlies at the end of March, against France in Saint-Denis and against Australia in London, stand between Colombia and Russia 2018. The lineups and game plans picked for these games will be key to identifying what Pekerman must focus on before his final warm-ups just days before the World Cup.
It's safe to say that Pekerman has already picked most of his final roster. The March games therefore represent the final test for those who haven't booked their tickets to Russia yet. Captains Falcao and James Rodriguez already know they'll be playing in Russia and will be relied upon to make the difference in tight games. The pair are capable of turning an average side into a team capable of anything. Rodriguez, the star from Cucuta, has already proved that he can be one of the best players in a World Cup, while Falcao is eager to finally play in the tournament of his dreams.
The arrival of Jupp Heynckes was vital for James to regain his confidence. Now he is one of the best players of a Bayern side aiming for three titles, and his national team will be energized by his renewed sense of motivation. Falcao, for his part, is Monaco's leader and he's managed to become one of the top scorers in France despite that his team is no longer able to create as many chances as they did last season. This week they've both suffered physical setbacks but will definitely be present in the friendlies.
What Pekerman needs to do is assemble a squad capable of supporting James' creativity and enhancing Falcao's scoring threat, and he has plenty of players to do it. Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina are the favorite center-back tandem. These prodigious young players only differ in the number of matches played this year: the Tottenham man is a regular starter while the Barcelona center-back has yet to win Alejandro Valverde's trust. Christian Zapata, Oscar Murillo, Jeison Murillo, Eder Alvarez Balanta and William Tesillo are solid and experienced squad players.
Outside-back Santiago Arias has practically secured his spot on the right. He has already played a World Cup and has been featuring regularly as a key player at PSV Eindhoven. Frank Fabra will probably be chosen to man the left after his excellent performances with Boca Juniors. Arias is a better defensive player, while Fabra is tireless in attacking his area of the field. Johan Mojica and Jefferson Lerma are multi-functional men capable of defending and playing in midfield roles.
However, there are several doubts in central midfield. Carlos Sanchez' great match against Real Madrid for Espanyol is one of the best pieces of news Pekerman has received of late. "La Roca" is one of Colombian fans' favorite players and if he keeps this form up, he'll definitely start against Japan. Wilmar Barrios is a luxury reserve. He could play with Abel Aguilar at his side, repeating the partnership that played in Brazil 2014, but Mateus Uribe and Daniel Torres also have a chance of breaking in. Further ahead, James' natural partner is Juan Cuadrado, but he has yet to play in 2018 following groin surgery and we'll see how he returns to Juventus. Edwin Cardona and Jose Izquierdo's excellent presence should give the staff some peace of mind.
Falcao's partner up front is still a mystery. Even though it could be Cardona or Izquierdo, it could also be a more experienced forward. Carlos Bacca and Miguel Borja have rediscover their scoring ability while Duvan Zapata is playing really well on loan at Sampdoria. The coach likes Yimmi Chara and Luis Muriel, too; there's no shortage of options.
A hundred days ahead of Russia 2018, Colombia are calm and confident because they know what they are capable of. They have players who shine all over the world and who are capable of defeating anyone. The just need to build a reliable team that knows what they want and how they want it. Jose Pekerman is the right man for the job. The hope is alive.