Colombia sweats on James' fitness


This World Cup threatens at times to explode into the most enjoyable ever - think Portugal v Spain, Nigeria v Argentina and Germany derailing against Mexico and South Korea in the first round.


The knockout stages though have been a mixed bag: France v Argentina and Belgium v Japan were bona fide classics, but does anyone want to buy the DVD of any of the other four Round of 16 matches played so far, unless you are Russian?

Sunday served up a couple of duds which both went to penalties, although Kaspar Schmeichel's spot-kick-saving prowess made the Croatia v Denmark shootout briefly exciting.

So now to Sweden v Switzerland, a clash between well-organised, moderately talented yet very hard-working units. It is unlikely to be a passing-fest tomorrow. Expect vertical play, piling in at corners and set pieces and hard running upfield on the break.

The Swedes are without key midfielder Sebastian Larsson but should otherwise be unchanged, while the Swiss have lost two of their back four to yellow cards - Stephane Lichtsteiner and Fabiane Schar.

While too close to call with any confidence, the Swiss perhaps have the edge through their sharp counter-attacking and the mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri.

England v Colombia is the main dish on the menu however, an intriguing meeting between European and South American teams both slightly behind their continent's finest but with a golden opportunity to write a famous World Cup story.

Colombia, unlike England have lost a match and won their group in Russia. Los Cafeteros began their finals with a depressing 2-1 loss to Japan and a double whammy of James Rodriguez failing a fitness test and Carlos Sanchez getting sent off in the first minute.

In their second game however, a fit again James inspired his colleagues to register a 3-0 win over Poland, absurdly seeded in Group H (they finished bottom), Colombia's best performance since 2014.

Then at half-time against Senegal, Colombia looked on their way out having been outmuscled and outplayed by an African team with apparently more thirst for victory.

When James limped off it all looked bleak for Jose Pekerman's team, but in a rejuvenated second half they scored and were worth the three points.

In other words, Colombia are very inconsistent and it is hard to know which team will turn up before each half begins.

Perhaps Bayern Munich's No.10 holds the key. When fit Rodriguez is clearly their best orchestrator. His pass to release Juan Cuadrado to score against Poland was perhaps the best assist of the tournament.

In 2014 he was goalscoring until he took the Golden Boot but this time Falcao is playing so James is playing further back.

His 2018 injuries have been surprising and frustrating for Colombia; calf strains in both legs which have limited him to only one full match so far.

James slammed the ground in exasperation as he realised he needed to leave the field against Senegal after half an hour while 49 million Colombian hearts sank.

An MRI scan showed nothing serious we are told but insider sources say he has sat out training for four days leaving his participation doubtful. Even if he plays, will he be match sharp enough for a gruelling 90 or an attritional further 30 and penalties?

If James is absent, River Plate's Juan Quintero will assume a greater role pulling the strings. His grasscutter free kick goal against Japan was also one of the best set pieces seen in Russia.

Quintero has been Colombia's break out player in Russia. He is fairly short and not particularly quick but is creative, which has led many to connect his presence in the side to that of Juan Riquelme in Pekerman's Argentina side of 2006.

Colombia are an offensive team, who are irresistible when their three attackers - Cuadrado, Quintero and Rodriguez are in free flow.

Cuadrado free-wheeling up the right wing and Falcao prowling the opposition penalty box are two dangers England must nullify. In substitutes Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel they have more dangerous forward options as well as lively Brighton winger Jose Izquierdo.

Their rather pedestrian defensive midfielders - Sanchez and Abel Aguilar or Mateus Uribe, are often bypassed however and wing backs Santiago Arias and the attack-minded Johan Mohica can get isolated.

While centre-backs Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina are both strong, tall stoppers, both can go wandering and Mina can look uncomfortable taking the ball out of defence.

Measuring almost two metres, Mina rose to nod home against Senegal, which should alert England's defenders at set pieces. David Ospina in goal perhaps encapsulates Colombia - usually reliable but prone to the odd costly slip.

The South Americans have an experienced coach in Pekerman, a man universally respected for his gentlemanly and respectful conduct and a national hero in Colombia after 2014, which saw the Argentinian awarded Colombian citizenship.

But there are questions about his side's mentality, which too often switches off and lets their opposition boss the game, dominating possession and winning the 50-50 balls.

Losing James will be a blow but the Coffeemen will recall similar prophets of gloom when Falcao was ruled out of 2014 ate their words as they reached the last eight.

One suspects England will dominate the first half before Colombia come out and play after the break. If Harry Kane is given an inch he will score, but Davinson Sanchez knows him well enough from Tottenham Hotspur.

England banged in the goals against lowly Panama, but unlike Colombia have not been tested yet in Russia.

On paper the Europeans should come out on top, but in this World Cup of surprises it would be foolish to tip the Three Lions to win with any certainty.

Gareth Southgate's men want to play offensively with flying wing-backs but that is a danger against a slick passing side like Colombia.

If the FIFA World Rankings are worth anything after so many shocks, the Swiss are ranked 18 places above Sweden, while England are four above Colombia.

One hopes the first match-up will be like a tense UEFA qualifier with high stakes, the second an exciting contrast of continental styles the like of which only the World Cup can provide.

At this stage of the competition, the watching world wants entertaining above all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post