Colombia were the first side to qualify for the last eight of the 2011 Copa America, coming through their group undefeated and without conceding a goal. Victories over Costa Rica and Bolivia and a draw with Argentina in a game in which they certainly had enough chances to win saw them tipped as potential winners of the tournament, but such optimism was soon punctured by a 2-0 defeat to Peru in the quarter finals.
versus Costa Rica
Click for larger image
Hernan Dario Gomez lined up his team in a 4-1-4-1 formation for their opening game against Costa Rica. Gustavo Bolivar shielded in front of the back four, while the four more advanced midfielders pressed high up the field in an attempt to hurry their inexperienced opponents into mistakes. This had the desired effect, as 33% (38 of 114) of Costa Rica’s attempted passes failed to find their intended target, but it did leave a huge gap between the high pressing midfield four and the five defensive players that surely would have been punished by a side more composed in possession.
Costa Rica began with a deep defensive line, looking to suck up the pressure and hope for some moments of individual brilliance on the counter-attack. They then dropped even more men behind the ball following the somewhat harsh dismissal of Randall Brenes for a foul on Luis Perea on 28 minutes. Colombia found it hard to break down their resistance, lacking a creative presence to unpick the defence. Abel Aguilar was presumably the player assigned to this function, but he performed so poorly in the opening 35 minutes that Gomez substituted him in favour of Hugo Rodallega, who was tasked with roaming just off of the main striker Radamel Falcao Garcia in what was almost a 4-2-4 considering the degree to which both wide midfielders pushed further forward.
Gomez’s change didn’t have the desired effect as it just exasperated the problem of a lack of midfield creativity and effectively created an even greater divide between defence and attack, even if Fredy Guarin dropping slightly further back did give both full-backs more license to get forward, which they used to decent effect. That said, Colombia did take the lead just before half-time when Guarin split the Costa Rican defence with an excellently weighted pass through to Adrian Ramos, who rounded the goalkeeper with his first touch before sliding the ball into the empty net with his weaker left foot. It was a truly superb pass, but one that Guarin was unable to replicate in the second half, giving the ball away whenever he tried another ambitious through-ball. To be fair to him, this is not his game – Guarin thrives more on quickly moving the ball forwards on a counter-attack than in picking a pass through tightly congested defences – and it was perhaps unfair of Gomez to expect him to bear the creative responsibility of the team.
Colombia’s only real threat came from wide areas, where seven crosses resulted in one header on target, one wide, and two corners won. Falcao also crashed a header onto the crossbar from a Guarin corner second half, showing that even playing poorly, they posed enough of an aerial threat to cause the Costa Rican defence problems. All in all it was a fairly pedestrian start to Colombia’s Copa America campaign, but one that Gomez was able to neatly sweep under the carpet following their impressive performances in the following two group games.
versus Argentina and Bolivia
Click for larger image
Gomez made just one change to his starting eleven for Colombia’s match against the hosts Argentina, replacing Bolivar with Carlos Sanchez. The change was surprising as Bolivar had put in a competent performance against Costa Rica and there seemed little reason to replace him, but it proved to be an excellent decision as Sanchez excelled just in front of the back four. Faced with the daunting task of defending the space that Lionel Messi was to occupy, Sanchez gave a superb illustration of defensive midfield play at its finest, tackling cleanly and blocking Messi’s intended passes. He committed just three fouls all game and only one on Messi.
Sanchez provided the base for a much improved performance from the Colombians, who shone against a team more willing to come out and attack them. Looking at the make-up of the team it is clear to see that counter-attacking football suits the majority of the players and so it proved here.
The main chain of attack was Sanchez passing short to Aguilar, who would then either roll the ball into Falcao or look to release either of the wide midfielders into space. Increasingly in the second half he would also look to Guarin, who made runs forward from the right of the central midfield area and slipped through a number of excellent passes at pace as Colombia’s counter-attacks became ever more dangerous. The wide midfielders swapped flanks on a regular basis to vary the threat posed to each full-back.
Whichever of the two was stationed on the left at any given time had a key role in Colombia’s counter-attacking play as Gomez elected to leave the left midfielder high up the field when Argentina attacked (shown on the diagram above in Ramos’ positioning), instructing Aguilar to move over to the left to cover the forward runs of the Argentina right-back Pablo Zabaleta. When he did so, the right midfielder would tuck in a little on the right, safe in the knowledge that Argentina’s left-back Javier Zanetti would have to cut back onto his favoured right foot, thus giving him time to recover if Argentina switched the ball quickly. The left midfielder therefore generally found himself in space when Colombia regained possession and was the favourite out ball from which a counter-attack could be launched. Argentina coach Sergio Batista had made it clear that he was looking to emulate Barcelona’s style of play and it was thus hardly surprising that a tactic those few coaches to have overcome Josep Guardiola’s men have used to good effect was also successful for Gomez against Batista’s poor imitation.
Apart from an Ezequiel Lavezzi shot well saved by Neco Martinez, Argentina’s efforts were all snap shots or ambitious attempts from long-range, whereas Colombia created some outstanding opportunities. Ramos missed from close range when he really should have done better, Moreno missed an open goal after Ramos had been taken down and the Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero made a couple of good saves. On the balance of play, Colombia could easily have taken all three points.
Gomez kept the same team for their final group game against Bolivia, a game that their opponents had to win to have any chance of making the last eight. This necessity to attack meant that they played high enough up the field to give Colombia plenty of room to exploit in behind, which they did with consummate ease. First, Moreno slipped a lovely ball through the Bolivian defence for Falcao to run onto and slot calmly past the goalkeeper, and then Armero was felled in the area after escaping into acres of space on the left. Falcao stepped up and dispatched the resulting penalty with a stuttered run-up to put Colombia 2-0 up in the first half hour.
Excepting a strong opening to the second half from Bolivia, Colombia controlled the game and would have added further to the scoreline had it not been for some wayward finishing. Their ability to break quickly and precisely was a joy to behold and they went into their quarter final with Peru as favourites to reach the last four.
Click for larger image
Gomez again kept faith with the same starting eleven, who continued in a 4-1-4-1 formation as before.
Peru coach Sergio Markarian had obviously noted the difference in performance between Colombia’s opener against Costa Rica and their two subsequent matches and setup his team to prevent Guarin and Aguilar getting on the ball, thus killing the swift supply line to the wide midfielders and Falcao that had been so crucial in the latter two games. He employed Luis Advincula to man-mark Aguilar and told his other central midfielder Rinaldo Cruzado to do similar on Guarin. He was content to give Sanchez time on the ball in the knowledge that the defensive midfielder lacked the passing range to make effective use of the space afforded to him, and so it proved.
Starved of his usual out balls, Sanchez looked to the two full-backs, who were willing to get forward but were not the same creative threat as Aguilar and Guarin. Armero made one burst into the area that resulted in a shot well smothered by the goalkeeper, but otherwise they offered little of much substance offensively. Ramos grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of service and dropped deep in search of the ball, thus negating the threat of his pace in behind the Peruvian defence, while Falcao cut a lonely figure for much of the match.
Peru changed tact somewhat for the second half, replacing Advincula with Carlos Lobaton and looking to defend more through the creation of a solid central midfield three that were difficult to penetrate than by haring around after Colombia’s central midfielders as they had done in the first half. This briefly threatened to work against them as Colombia created three good chances in the early second half exchanges by playing balls over the top to Moreno, who was consistently able to get in on the blind side of Peru’s left-back Walter Vilchez. Moreno had one shot wide, one that hit the post, and was then pulled back by the covering central defender Alberto Rodriguez for a penalty on 65 minutes. Unfortunately for Colombia, Falcao missed the target from the resulting spot kick, and from then on Vilchez and his team-mates were able to snuff out Moreno’s threat.
Colombia just weren’t able to move the ball through midfield with the same pace as they had against Argentina and Bolivia, meaning that they struggled to create many clear cut opportunities outside of Moreno’s early second half success. That Peru managed more shots on target (7 to Colombia’s 6) despite completing fifty less passes (184 to 134 in Colombia’s favour) says it all.
Peru grew into the game offensively second half, and always looked the more likely scorers once the match went into extra time, although they had to rely on two errors from Martinez to progress. First, he flapped at a high free kick into the area, presenting the ball to Carlos Lobaton, who fired home emphatically, and then his poor clearance went straight to Paulo Guerrero, who ran forward before teeing up Juan Vargas to smash a second high into the back of the net.
Colombia were supreme on the counter-attack, breaking with such precision, power and pace that it was near impossible for opposition defences to offer any resistance. Looking at the players available to him, Gomez realised that such a style of football would suit their characteristics, and so it proved, with Aguilar, Guarin, Ramos and Falcao particularly impressive on the break. The introduction of Sanchez for Bolivar from the second match onwards was also of great assistance to playing in this manner as he moved the ball on much quicker upon winning back possession than Bolivar had – Sanchez’s four years experience in European football clearly a factor.
The team ethic displayed by Colombia throughout the tournament was very impressive. Everyone worked as hard on the defensive aspect of their game as they did the offensive side and there appeared to be a superb bond between the players. There were no adverse reactions when players were substituted and there were no signs of the indiscipline that befell certain other teams in the knockout stages.
The Colombian defence was highly impressive throughout the tournament, keeping clean sheets in each of their three group games and only conceding twice in the quarter final due to mistakes from their goalkeeper. The experienced Mario Yepes was a rock in the centre of defence alongside Luis Perea, and even though he is surely reaching the final years of his career, Colombia have a ready made replacement in the ever improving Cristian Zapata, who has recently moved to Villarreal from Udinese.
Former national team great Carlos Valderrama said before the tournament that the team were lacking creativity and so it proved when they came up against stubborn opposition. Gomez was unlucky to be robbed of the services of Giovanni Moreno through injury, but may rue his decision not to call on the likes of Macnelly Torres or even the veteran Giovanny Hernandez to offer a different option off the bench. As it was, whenever Colombia needed goals, his only option was to simply throw more strikers on, which did little other than to add another forward to the line of them waiting for better service from midfield.
Martinez always looked liable to concede a goal from high set-pieces into his area and so it proved when he flapped at the corner from which Peru got their first goal in the quarter finals. He showed himself to be a decent, if slightly unorthodox, shot stopper, but really struggled with the aerial aspect of his game and was also prone to kicking errors. Gomez will be glad to have David Ospina, first choice before he picked up an injury in their first training session for the Copa, back for the World Cup qualifiers.
James Rodriguez (20) was the key player in Colombia’s recent triumph in the Toulon Tournament and will lead their charge as hosts in the 2011 U-20 World Cup that kicks off later this week. A left-footed winger who is content playing on either side of the pitch, he possess pace, skill and a rifle of a shot, and it can only be a matter of time before he breaks into the senior squad on a regular basis.
Edwin Cardona (18) was another who impressed during the Toulon Tournament. A creative midfielder with an eye for goal, he is on the fringes of the first eleven at Atletico Nacional and could be given more chance to shine in the coming season following Macnelly Torres’ move to Mexico. He was the top-scorer at the 2009 South American U-17 Championship and scored four in the group stage of the 2011 South American U-20 Championship before mysteriously dropping to the bench for the final stage. There have been suggestions that his attitude was having a divisive effect on the squad, and that is probably why the U-20 coach Eduardo Lara has elected not to take him to the U-20 World Cup, because on talent alone Cardona would definitely be worthy of a place in the squad.
Luis Muriel (20) burst onto the scene in March 2010, scoring nine goals in ten appearances for Deportivo Cali, including a hat-trick away to Once Caldas. Interest from Europe was strong, and although Barcelona and Villarreal both made tentative inquiries, it was Udinese who came in with a firm offer and secured the promising young striker. He has since struggled to get regular playing time on loan at Granada in the Spanish Second Division, but was impressive in the Toulon Tournament and looks likely to lead the line for Colombia at the U-20 World Cup.
Hopes for World Cup Qualification
Colombia last qualified for the World Cup in 1998 and their subsequent failure to qualify, albeit by close margins, has caused a lot of doubt and self loathing to creep into the minds of the local supporters and journalists.
Gomez was the coach when they last qualified and with four and a half spots available to nine teams will be hopeful of ending their spell in the wilderness this time around.
Colombia’s Copa performances illustrated that there are a superb team on the counter-attack, which should serve them well in their away fixtures, and as long as they can add a little creativity to midfield for their home matches – possibly by switching from 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1 – they should be there or thereabouts come the end of the campaign.