What Next: Colombia
With no competitive fixtures for almost a year, the post-World Cup period is the perfect opportunity for South American nations to assess, experiment and, in some cases, totally rebuild in preparation for the next qualification campaign. The ‘What Next’ Series will look at the key questions and issues facing each country and what we can expect from them in the friendlies ahead of next year’s Copa America and beyond.
First up is Colombia, who captured the hearts of fans worldwide with their delightful run to a historic first quarter final in Brazil. With golden boot winner James Rodriguez at the forefront of a dynamic Cafatero outfit, pre-tournament worries about the loss of star striker Falcao were firmly put to one side as Jose Pekerman’s men brushed aside Japan, Greece and Ivory Coast in the group stage, before cruising past Uruguay and eventually narrowly succumbing to hosts Brazil in a heated affair in Fortaleza.
Naturally hopes will be high that Colombia can kick from here. Their squad will not require major renovation and the core of the group should be, in theory, reaching or at its prime. Next World Cup could be a last hurrah for this talented generation but with two Copa Americas in the next two years they have excellent opportunity to win some silverware.
Perhaps the most pressing issue to be addressed is how to rejuvenate the centre of their defence, particularly the daunting task of replacing Mario Yepes. Cristian Zapata will remain but the likes of Perea and Mosquera, already 35 and 33 respectively, will probably be slowly phased out, and thus plenty of spots are up for grabs.
The prime candidate for a spot alongside Zapata will be River Plate’s promising centre back Eder Alvarez Balanta. The 21-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise, making his debut in April 2013 to earning a place at the World Cup just 14 months later. Strong, quick across the ground, left-footed and good in the air, Balanta has all the traits to become a fantastic defender and could go on to be Colombia’s first choice for the next decade. However, with just 4 caps to his name, it will be a steep learning curve for the youngster as he looks to quickly gain experience at international level.
There is also strength in depth. Stefan Medina, 22, moved to Mexican side Monterrey after making over 100 appearances for Atletico Nacional, winning six titles during his spell in Medellin and has been on the fringes of the national team set up recently. Compared to Andres Escobar in style and appearance, Medina is equally adept at right back and his versatility could stand him in good stead for a place in the squad. Former U20 captain Pedro Franco, currently at Besiktas, is another interesting option who, along with Granada’s uncapped 22-year-old Jeison Murillo, has been called up to the squad for the upcoming friendlies, while further down the pecking order still is 20-year-old Jherson Vergara who is on AC Milan’s books.
At full back there is less need for renewal with Zuniga and Armero set to continue and Santiago Arias developing nicely. Hector Quinones is a promising option at left back but needs more regular first team football if he is to challenge for a place. Nevertheless, there are more than enough good young defenders ready to step up and now will be the time for Pekerman to work out who will go on to become regular fixtures in a new look backline.
One issue already resolved is that of the future of boss Jose Pekerman. The 64-year-old Argentine, who guided Colombia to their first World Cup since 1998, has extended his contract with the national team up until 2018, much to the relief of the CFF. This should ensure continuity within the squad but also bode well for the future, given Pekerman’s track record of successfully incorporating youngsters into the senior set up which should benefit Colombia in the long term too.
Elsewhere, the rest of the squad is pretty good nick, with an array of options in both midfield and up front. Expect James Rodriguez to grow into even more of a key figure after his sensational performances, while the electric Juan Cuadrado will continue to be a prominent weapon. It will be interesting to see how Juan Fernando Quintero is used, most likely as an understudy to James or out wide on the left to accommodate both. A star in waiting, it will be a crucial stage of his development with the national team.
Another exciting, if occasionally frustrating, option is Atletico Nacional’s Edwin Cardona. A powerful, pacey creative midfielder, Cardona is capable of the match winning moments but needs to work on his temperament and consistency. Pekerman is the ideal coach to smooth his rough edges and he’ll get a chance to impress in the upcoming friendlies against El Salvador & Canada.
Clearly the strongest area of the Cafatero squad, the forwards are in terms of quality and quantity up there with the best. Main man Radamel Falcao will be desperate to make up for the disappointment of missing the World Cup but as Colombia showed in Brazil there is no longer an over reliance on el Tigre. With Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca, Teo Gutierrez and Adrian Ramos all in great form there will be plenty of competition for places.
Waiting in the wings are a number of younger alternatives who should be targeting a place in the stellar strikeforce. Luis Muriel starred alongside James in the 2011 U20 World Cup but has not progressed as much as expected and needs to recapture his form to force his way back in contention. As well as Muriel, the likes of Darwin Quintero, Duvan Zapata, Yimmi Chara, Dorlan Pabon and Jhon Cordoba are on the fringes and are players who should be aiming to become part of the conversation too.
Still boasting an impressive squad reaching its prime, Colombia will now be expected to deliver. Qualification for Russia 2018 should be obtained but a Copa America win is well within reach for this talented generation and will be the more immediate target for Pekerman and his charges.