Prime forward talent can cover Colombia for Falcao fitness
Punters that think 22/1 shots Colombia’s World Cup chances hinge on Radamel Falcao, who is recovering from a knee injury in time to feature in Brazil, have obviously paid little attention to the scoring charts of other European leagues.
The prognosis has always been positive, but the fact remains he will have no time to find fitness, let alone form, if risked by Jose Pekerman on South American soil. Falcao’s odds of being World Cup top scorer are the same as Colombia capturing the crown – 22/1.
Nobody doubts that this country are better off with their star striker at Monaco, who formed a potent partnership with River Plate’s Teofilo Gutierrez (66/1 to be top scorer). This duo netted 15 times between them in 16 qualification matches.
Former Argentina boss Pekerman settled on variations of 4-4-2 in qualifying after predecessor Leonel Alvarez toyed with a wing back system. Gutierrez needs a partner, then, and the leading candidates to fill Falcao’s sizeable striking shoes have all scored plenty in Germany, Portugal and Spain respectively.
Adrian Ramos, who will join Borussia Dortmund from Hertha Berlin to replace Robert Lewandowski this summer, came out of the international wilderness on merit. Pekerman dropped him midway through 2012, but 16 Bundesliga goals this term (coupled with Falcao’s injury) have forced a rethink.
Jackson Martinez (Porto), meanwhile, is set to win the Portuguese top-flight Golden Boot after another prolific campaign. Pekerman largely used him from the bench in qualifying, but he could well be promoted into the XI, and is an 80/1 shot to be leading marksman at the finals.
It was Sevilla striker Carlos Bacca, who is set to break the 20-goal barrier in all competitions during his first season in Spain, however, that got the nod to lead Colombia’s line in their last outing. They failed to net from open play, with a James Rodriguez penalty earning a battling draw with Tunisia. Bacca is 125/1 with Coral to be World Cup top scorer.
Luis Muriel, a player that has endured a difficult season with Udinese, may miss out as a result, while Fulham’s Hugo Rodallega may be back in favour under Felix Magath, but has not been called up in two-and-a-half years.
Pekerman changed formation to 4-2-3-1 for the Tunisia match with Falcao’s Monaco cohort Rodriguez, who is 66/1 to be top scorer in Brazil, operating in behind Bacca. Given the nature of that World Cup warm-up friendly result, he could well revert back to two up top, and there are options aplenty.
It all depends on where he feels Rodriguez is deployed best. Macnelly Torres, who plays his club football in Saudi Arabia is another choice for attacking midfield,
Victor Ibarbo (Cagliari) can play wide or off the front like Rodriguez, while Juan Cuadrado (Fiorentina) is a real attacking outlet down the right and has caught the eye in Serie A.
Left-sided counterpart Juan Camilo Zuniga (Napoli), meanwhile, may have recovered from a lengthy layoff with a knee problem just in time to feature. Former teammate Pablo Armero, on loan West Ham, looks set to start at full back.
Porto replaced the influential Rodriguez with Juan Quintero, but their latest Colombian playmaker can also operate deeper in the engine room. He would be hard pressed to break up first-choice pair Abel Aguilar (Toulouse) and Fredy Guarin (Inter Milan), however.
There is also a substantial defensive midfield Colombian contingent for Pekerman to pick from. Aldo Leao Ramirez of Mexican club Morelia and Carlos Sanchez (Elche) are the experienced options here, but there is also Edwin Valencia (Fluminense) and Alexander Mejia (Atletico Nacional), who were on the last roster.
In central defence, Pekerman can probably only afford to pick one of paceless pair Luis Amaranto Perea (Cruz Azul) and Colombia skipper Mario Yepes (Atalanta), who was worryingly stretchered off in club action against Italian champions Juventus. They have a combined age of 73, so AC Milan’s Cristian Zapata looks a lock to partner either elder statesmen.
Santiago Arias of PSV Eindhoven has the right back berth nailed down, with fellow youngster Stefan Medina (Atletico Nacional) covering both this position and centre half. In goal, Nice stopper David Ospina was the regular in qualifying, but Pekerman has kept veteran custodian Faryd Mondragon in the fold.
Mondragon would break Roger Milla’s record as the oldest player to appear at the World Cup finals if involved. He turns 43 during the tournament and went to the 1993 Copa America, where Colombia finished third, as well as their last two appearances on the global stage (1994 and 1998).
Pekerman must plot a course through a World Cup pool that contains Greece, the Ivory Coast and Japan. On paper, qualification for the knockout phase (odds-on at 1/4 and 8/11 to win Group C) looks like plain sailing, so Colombia can feel confident about matching their best ever finish at the finals by reaching the last 16. They are 7/4 to bow out there.
A potential clash with England, Italy or fellow South American side Uruguay awaits at that stage – all nations that less fancied to take the trophy than Colombia. On their day, you can see them sneaking through, especially if it is a European nation that awaits them, so punters must consider odds of 3/1 on Pekerman being eliminated in the quarter-finals.