Despite talismanic striker Radamel Falcao not being able to recover from an anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained in January, Los Cafeteros of Colombia, ranked 8th in the world, will still boast a squad of considerable strength at the World Cup. Placed in Group C, along with the Ivory Coast, Japan, and Greece, they remain favorites to progress.
Coach José Pékerman will likely continue to use a 4-4-2 formation that doubles as a 4-2-2-2. This caters to their abundance of strikers and allows for their wingers to be the primary creators in attack.
David Ospina is the undisputed Number One for Pékerman, and after a qualifying campaign that saw Colombia concede only 13 goals in 16 matches – the best record in South America – his position is justified.
The Nice goalkeeper will be deputized by Camilo Vargas and living fossil Faryd Mondragón, who at 42 will be the oldest player at the World Cup.
Colombia will likely field a back four comprised primarily of Serie A players. AC Milan center back Christián Zapata will be partnered by 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes. The Atalanta defender is one of the last remnants of Colombia’s Golden Generation that won the Copa América in 2001 and will hope to reach his 100th cap by their third match against Japan.
The competition for the two fullback roles will be contested between PSV right back Santiago Arias and Napoli teammates Pablo Armero and Juan Camilo Zúñiga. With the latter able to play on either flank, expect Armero and Zúñiga to occupy the left and ride sides of defense. They will have the responsibility of contributing to attacks from wide positions as well, with Colombia’s wingers Rodríguez and Cuadrado often preferring to move inside to influence play.
Colombia’s four-man midfield will include two central midfielders shielding Zapata and Yepes, who will likely prove to be their biggest liability. This task will likely fall to Fredy Guarín and Abel Aguilar. Should Pékerman decide he wants more defensive cover in midfield, he may call upon the tough-tackling Carlos Sánchez.
Out wide, two of Colombia’s brightest talents ply their trade, with Monaco’s James Rodríguez on the left and Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado on the right. Rodríguez will be, by far, Colombia’s most dangerous player after Falcao’s injury, and will have the greatest influence over their World Cup campaign. The 22-year-old will certainly look to drift infield when Colombia is in possession in order to link up with both strikers ahead of him. Cuadrado, a more traditional winger than his counterpart on the left, is coming off of a fantastic season with La Viola, where he averaged a goal every three matches.
Such is the depth of Colombia’s front line that even without Falcao, there is no shortage of forwards at Pékerman’s disposal. Throughout qualifying, Teófilo Gutiérrez partnered Falcao, and it can be expected that he will maintain his place. The River Plate frontman has a history of controversial behavior – he once pulled a paintball gun on his teammates while at Racing – but certainly has the talent to fire Colombia into the knockout stages.
The real question is who will replace El Tigre. The three contenders will be Adrián Ramos, Jackson Martínez, and Carlos Bacca. Ramos just completed a transfer to Borussia Dortmund after a 16-goal season with Hertha Berlin, while Martínez had a stellar season for Porto and has since been linked with a number of high-profile moves. But with Martínez not featuring in Colombia’s last warmup match against Jordan, it may be Bacca who fills the void up top, particularly after leading Sevilla to a Europa League triumph. The 27-year-old scored in the round-of-16, quarter-finals, and semi-finals for Sevilla before scoring in the penalty shootout in the Europa League Final. While losing a player of Falcao’s class is never a benefit, Pékerman must be counting his lucky stars that he has so many quality understudies to select from.