As Colombia looks to escape the doldrums of mediocrity, Los Cafeteros will go head to head against Ecuador this Saturday, only to face Chile just a few days later.
After losing 1-0 to Spain last month, Colombia will look to get on the offensive against Ecuador and escape from a bunkering style of play that Colombia has adopted over the past few years.
On the other hand, Chile will be a more daunting task given Colombia's recent track record against the Chileans. Chile is loaded with young and experienced talent after coming off a solid World Cup campaign.
Hernán Darío Gómez aka "El Bolillo" appears to be on the right track as Colombia looks to face Argentina, Japan and Bolivia in the group stage of the Copa América this July. Since Gómez took over, he has been on a mission to put together the best possible team. With Leonel Alvarez (1990 and 1994 World Cup Midfielder for Colombia) as his assistant, it appears Colombia is well on their way to being a competitive team once again.
When Colombia faced Spain, they finally decided to call up a squad that was comprised mostly of players from European clubs rather than domestic players who are older and past their primes. In a surprising twist of events, Colombia nearly pulled off an upset, but did well enough to improve the morale of the supporters. Many supporters were ecstatic with how the Colombians played despite the result.
For these upcoming matches, Gómez called up a very similar list of players that we saw against Spain. Hopefully this will be the core team for not only the Copa América, but for the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers which will start later this year as well.
David Ospina, the 22-year-old OGC Nice goalkeeper, will be the one stopping the shots once again. The young keeper from Medellin is getting better each game, but will need to improve on his ability to catch the ball as Ospina does have the tendency to deflect shots that are catchable.
In the middle, the situation is interesting. Captain Mario Yepes, at 35, surprisingly still has what it takes to be a world class defender. Against Spain, he was clearly the man of the match. But the only problem is his lack of playing time for AC Milan. Hopefully, Yepes can get sufficient playing time for Milan before the Copa América so that he will be able to handle the rigors of playing in three to six games in a short period of time.
The big question for Colombia is the other center back role. Last month we saw Luis Perea (Atlético Madrid) as Yepes' partner, but his form has been very inconsistent over the last few years. What makes little sense is why Gómez does not use Cristian Zapata (Udinese) more frequently in the middle. Zapata is more than ready for full time action and will not get any better sitting on the sidelines.
To the satisfaction of many fans, Carlos Sánchez (Valenciennes) made his return against Spain after an unexplained three year absence. The defensive midfielder did a great job of keeping the 2010 World Cup Champions at bay. The 25-year-old midfielder is vital to the strength of the midfield.
Along with Sánchez, Abel Aguilar (Hercules) and Freddy Guarín (FC Porto) did a great job in the box to box role against the Wold Cup Champions. Guarín, has been on quite a roll at the club level the past few months by not only scoring goals but playing impressive defense as well. At the start of the season, it was unknown how Guarín would fit in the Portuguese side, but now he is turning into one of the most valuable players on the squad. Aguilar, not the flashiest player, will do everything that is necessary to win balls and organize the offense.
Attacking wise, Dayro Moreno (Once Caldas) will orchestrate the attack in Gio Moreno's absence. Most likely Dayro will be attacking from the right side, while Gómez will either stick with Adrián Ramos (Berlin) on the left or possibly even start Hugo Rodallega (Wigan).
While Ramos has struggled as a left midfielder (natural position is a striker), another option that has yet to be explored is 19 year old James Rodriguez (FC Porto). While James is clearly the best option as the left winger, there is an immense pressure for Colombia to perform well at the Under-20 World Cup which is to be played in Colombia this summer. As a result James will be playing in the yellow shirt, but against other teenagers who probably have a fraction of the accomplishments James has already earned.
Not calling up James to the senior national team right now is like telling Lebron James he has to play college basketball for a year before going professional. James most likely surprised the Colombian Football Federation and surpassed everyone's expectations.
An interesting selection is the inclusion of Juan Cuadrado. If he were a regular part of Udinese's lineup, there is no doubt Cuadrado would be the starting right midfielder. But, until he gets consistent playing time at the club level, we will have to settle for seeing the midfielder come off the bench in a super sub capacity. Cuadrado has been a proven game changer, but lacks the fitness to play 75 minutes or more on a consistent basis.
Absent against Spain, but ready to go against Ecuador and Chile is Radamel Falcao (FC Porto). The striker has been world class the past two seasons for Porto. Unfortunately, his opportunities in the yellow shirt have yielded average results. This stems from playing in front of a weak midfield and playing on a team that has the tendency to park the bus more often than not.
With this new midfield in place, Falcao should have some good chances to score some goals. Other strikers that will be able to benefit from this stronger midfield are Rodallega, Víctor Hugo Montaño (Rennes) and Carlos Carbonero (Once Caldas). Both Montaño and Carbonero are somewhat new to the international scene, so hopefully both strikers can take advantage of this opportunity to score and be in a position to become a recurring call up to the Seleccion.
During the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup, Colombia found themselves bunkering down and playing too defensively against most nations. It was an exception, not the norm, anytime Colombia scored more than one goal. This underachieving mentality does not make sense when there are clinical finishers such as Falcao, Rodallega and Dayro as a part of the attack.
Additionally, between Aguilar, Sánchez and Guarín, these are three solid box to box midfielders who combine defense and ball control. If these three are on the pitch at the same time, Colombia will be able to win and maintain possession. It is time for Colombia to start controlling their own destiny as opposed to what we have seen from them over the last several years.
Another crucial factor will be how well Guarín can transfer his club form to the yellow shirt. At Porto, Guarín does not hesitate to use his powerful foot to take shots from outside the 18. If players like him and Rodallega take shots from anywhere outside the box, it will keep the defense modest while making Colombia's attack unpredictable.
Ecuador will be without key striker Felipe Caicedo (Levante) who recently went down with injury. But Colombia will need to watch out for Antonio Valencia (Manchester United) who just returned from injury and is wasting little time finding his form.
In what will be a tougher challenge, Chile will be featuring many of the same players from the recent World Cup. In top form at Udinese, Alexis Sánchez will make sure Ospina has a busy day in the goal.
The big story with Chile though is the recent departure of Marcelo Bielsa. Due to the political nature of the Chilean Football Federation, Chile shot themselves in the foot and lost one of the best managers in the world. Hopefully, Claudio Borghi will not ruin what Bielsa spent the last four years trying to establish.
After these two matches, Colombia is scheduled to just one more friendly before flying to Argentina for the Copa América. Should Los Cafeteros play with the same composure and aggressiveness that was seen against Spain, Colombia will be much closer to having a squad that can compete with the elite of South America.
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