Colombia need James Rodriguez, Juan Fernando Quintero in tandem after Japan shock
SARANSK, Russia - Three quick thoughts from Colombia 1-2 Japan in Group H at the World Cup on Tuesday afternoon:
No battle plan ever survives initial contact with the enemy -- and seldom was that truer than in Colombia's World Cup opener, a 2-1 defeat to Japan on Tuesday.
The game had barely started before Colombia found themselves a goal down and a man down -- and a vital one at that. Defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez is one of the first names on the team-sheet, playing a vital role in balancing out the side. But he was dismissed for handling Shinji Kagawa's shot at a goal, picking up a red card after just two minutes and 56 seconds.
That made it the first dismissal of this World Cup and second quickest in history -- and having to chase the game with 10 men proved too much for Jose Pekerman's men.
Juan Fernando Quintero's inventive free kick levelled things in the first half but, Japan were worthy winners in the end. Yuya Osako headed home a corner for the first win by an Asian team against South American opposition at the World Cup in 18 attempts.
Clearly the early -- and utterly non-controversial -- red card had a major impact on the way the game unfolded. Things may well have turned out very differently in a contest of 11 against 11.
But even so, there are conclusions that can be drawn and questions that can be posed from the Colombia performance.
Did coach Pekerman get it right with his choice of centre-backs?
Colombia have been consistently underwhelming over the past four years, since a quarterfinal exit to Brazil at World Cup 2014. Pekerman has repeatedly tinkered with his lineup, giving the air of a man unsure of his first team or even his formation. In 18 World Cup qualifiers he used an astonishing 45 players. He may well have been overdoing the tinkering and he certainly leaves himself open to that accusation with his choice of centre-backs.
The Davinson Sanchez-Oscar Murillo partnership did not come out of this game with great credit. Fingers can be pointed at them for both the Japan goals. But their only previous games together were the last round of qualifiers against Japan, and the second half of the warm up friendly against Egypt.
Since qualification, the more regular duo has been Sanchez with the giant Yerry Mina of Barcelona, who played in the wins over China and France and the first half against Egypt. Colombia have never been beaten with Mina on the field. His first months with Barcelona have not been easy, but he and Colombia may have benefited from receiving a vote of confidence and starting this game. It will be a surprise if Mina does not come in for Sunday's crunch meeting with Poland.
Does the coach trust Falcao too much?
This World Cup is a huge competition for captain and centre-forward Radamel Falcao. He missed Brazil 2014, where his frantic efforts to get fit in time following a serious knee injury surely had a detrimental effect on his career. This will almost certainly be the only World Cup he ever plays.
But should he have played the full 90 minutes against Japan? Falcao is a front-to-goal striker, a magnificent predatory sight when attacking the ball in front of him. Twice in the first half he so nearly made his mark, stretching to reach balls played behind the Japan defence by Quintero. Other than that, though, Falcao does not offer much. His link play is mediocre, and when Colombia were being pressed back into their own half by Japan in the last 45 minutes, he was of little use.
Pekerman must have thought of taking him off. Luis Muriel, for example, would have provided more options with his pace and physicality. Was this a call the coach was not prepared to make?
The big hope for the next game -- James and Quintero together
Colombia now have to be bold. They must set out to beat Poland and Senegal or say a rapid farewell to Russia 2018. And their best chance of doing that must surely be to line up two of their playmakers together.
James Rodriguez is undoubtedly the star man. Four years ago, Quintero was his understudy. He is back in that role again, after losing focus, putting on weight and flirting with a career in music in the interim. But he is a wonderfully imaginative playmaker, full of clever passes and left-footed wizardry. In the warm up friendly against Egypt, Colombia's best football came when Quintero came off the bench to combine with Rodriguez.
Quintero started the Japan game because Rodriguez was not fully fit -- and gave way to him just before the hour mark. Colombia's best chance of breaking down opposing defences is to have the two of them working together.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.