Return of the Mac

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 19/03/12)

Colombian side Atlético Nacional have started their Copa Libertadores campaign in fine form and are quickly establishing themselves as every neutral’s favourite.  The Medellín based club, back after a four year absence, were pitted alongside Sudamericana champions Universidad de Chile, last year’s Libertadores finalists Peñarol and free-scoring Argentinian outfit Godoy Cruz, in what was being dubbed the group of death before the tournament.  Few people though would have predicted them to do quite so well and some even now consider them to be among the dark horses for the title.

They announced their arrival in their first game with a highly impressive 2-0 win at home against the much lauded Chilean side.  After a fabulous 2011, all eyes were on La ‘U’, but it was the well organised Colombians who took advantage of an unusually lop-sided La ‘U’ side, scoring a goal in each half to win the tie.  No mean feat against a side who only conceded the same amount during the whole of the Copa Sudamericana!

However, what really made the continent sit up and take notice was the manner in which they destroyed Peñarol 4-0 in the Uruguayans’ own back yard.  Right from the off Atlético’s direct, swaggering approach dominated proceedings and over the course of the 90 minutes they thoroughly dismantled Peñarol, with Cordoba and Pabón duly helped themselves to a brace each.  This was followed up by a thrilling 4-4 away draw against Godoy Cruz which sees El Verde remain unbeaten midway through the group stage, sitting atop group 8 with 7 points.

However, not everything has been going swimmingly.  Recent off field problems have provided an undesirable side story, after a 21-year-old Atlético Nacional fan was killed after clashes following the local derby with Independiente Medellín last week.  Their league form has also been fairly inconsistent, having only picked up 10 points from 8 games, and sees them currently lie in 9th place.  With the Libertadores their priority, they have rotated heavily with their revamped squad which to a certain degree, along with the toll of travelling, can explain the dip in their domestic form.

Despite their indifferent league performances, the man receiving the lion’s share of the plaudits for their Libertadores exploits has been star striker Dorlan Pabón, who is in scintillating form, having netted 11 times already this calendar year.  The 24-year-old is blessed with devastating pace, great strength and balance, as well as a powerful shot off either boot that can’t stop finding the back of the net of late.  These hard-working performances have not gone unnoticed and Pabón has been called up to the national squad and is starting to attract interest from Europe.

However, another key component to Los Verdolagas Libertadores success has been the role of the marvellously-named playmaker MACNELLY TORRES.

The man who simply wears ‘Mac’ on his number 10 shirt began his career at Junior before moving onto Cúcuta, where he played a pivotal part in their run to the Libertadores semi-finals in 2007.  After a spell in Chile with Colo Colo, where he won the Clausura twice, he returned to Colombia in 2011 with Atlético Nacional and promptly guided them to the 2011 Apertura title.  His loan move to San Luis in Mexico for the second half of 2011 saw a significant downturn in fortune for At. Nacional, but his return to Medellín this season has unsurprisingly coincided with their continental success.

Torres is best known for his incredible vision and the ability to execute his trademark defence-splitting through balls.  He is the traditional number 10, a position so important in South American football, capable of dictating play and producing a moment of magic to unlock the tightest of defences with a threaded eye-of-the-needle pass through to the striker.  He currently leads the charts with 4 assists in the Libertadores and his relationship and understanding with Pabón have been the catalyst for At. Nacional’s recent success, as well as allowing the striker to flourish and showcase his undoubted talent.

So does this good form with At. Nacional mean that an international call up could be on the cards in the near future?  Torres was part of the highly rated 2003 under-20 squad that finished third and has intermittently collected 24 caps over the years without ever cementing his place in national setup.  The appointment of José Pekerman as national team boss could however give him another shot.

Colombia have struggled ever since the failure of the uber-talented 1994 squad and the tragic murder of ex-Atlético Nacional centre back Andres Escobar (whose brother, Santiago, is now in charge of Atlético) but have reason to be hopeful.  Pekerman, who played in Colombia, will be hoping to rediscover that footballing identity and make the most of a talented batch of players at his disposal.  In recent years they have been defensively solid but have struggled to score goals, despite the striking talent they have in Falcao, Teo Gutiérrez, Jackson Martínez and At. Nacional’s very own Pabón.

Pekerman’s attractive 2006 Argentina side that crashed out to Germany in the quarter finals was built around the playmaking abilities of Juan Román Riquelme and if he were to adopt a similar system it could bode well for Torres’ chances of a return from the international wilderness.  Colombia have lacked a proper number 10 since Carlos Valderrama and his fantastic barnet and Pekerman may well hope that the near telepathic link-up between Torres and Pabón at Atlético Nacional could translate to the national team.  At 27, traditionally a player’s peek, he could be coming into form at just the right time with the World Cup just around the corner.

Torres would however face competition from Racing’s Gio Moreno, a marvellously gifted playmaker, and Porto’s young starlet James Rodríguez.  Given Pekerman’s fantastic record at youth level, where he won three under-20 titles with Argentina, he may favour Rodríguez and hope to nurture his blossoming talent and those that performed so admirably at last year’s under-20 World Cup.

Rodríguez was certainly the star of that Colombia side terrorizing defences and contributing 3 goals and 3 assists, as well as showing plenty of guile, trickery, flair and a fantastic crossing ability.  He proved to be calm under pressure with a last minute penalty against Costa Rica to take Colombia into the quarter finals.  He certainly looks set to have a bright future ahead of him.

Other talents from that exciting squad include goalkeeper Bonilla, marauding full backs Santiago Arias (now at Sporting) and Héctor Quiñones (playing in Libertadores with Junior), centre back captain Pedro Franco, tricky diminutive midfielder Michael Ortega (on loan at Leverkusen), and forward Luis Muriel, who has impressed in Serie A with Lecce and has reportedly attracted the attention of Luis Enrique’s youthful Roma side.  Pekerman will be hoping that these promising youngsters continue their development and give the Cafeteros a good blend of youth and experience.

In the meantime, Macnelly Torres will hope his return to El Verde and his partnership with Pabón can continue Atlético Nacional’s good form in the Libertadores.  They face Godoy Cruz again this Friday and a win would put them in a great position to qualify for the knock out stages.  Whether they can live up to their nickname of the King of Cups remains to be seen but they are certainly capable of a decent run.  This in turn could give Torres an outside chance of earning a place in the Colombia squad as José Pekerman looks to find a formula capable of leading Colombia to their first World Cup appearance in sixteen years.