It’s Colombia vs Brazil at 3.30pm today in the heat in Barranquilla. Colombia have qualification in their own hands, but cutting the 9-match-winning streak of Brazil today won’t be easy work.
Into the final furlong with just three still to play, Colombia vs Brazil today, the Cafeteros are nervously looking over their shoulders. Failure to beat already eliminated Venezuela last Thursday, despite their neighbours fielding an inexperienced line-up filled with players promoted from their successful U20 side, has squeezed the South American qualifying group ever tighter. And, while Colombia currently sit second behind runaway leaders Brazil, they are now just two points from plummeting out of the automatic qualification spots.
With just one win in their entire qualifying campaign, Venezuela were seen as pushovers. But again Colombia slumped. “Another point but against the bottom side,” ran the headline in the country’s main newspaper El Tiempo after the 0-0 stalemate. “It was a game we just had to win, and we failed,” grumbled journalist Gabriel Meluk.
As so often is the case in recent years Venezuela proved to be the stone in Colombia’s shoe. Not since 2001 have Colombia scored on Venezuelan soil in the qualifiers (now 362 minutes) and, under manager Jose Pekerman, it’s now three straight games without a goal on foreign soil against their neighbours. Even with nothing to play for, Colombia’s bogey team again turned in a performance.
Much attention was naturally directed at 19-year-old Venezuela goalie Wuilker Fariñas, who again underlined his extraordinary talent with another man-of-the-match display.
But this wasn’t a Colombia performance frustrated by one inspired individual. For long periods they toiled and failed to find a way through the flurry of fouls that pockmarked the game. It wasn’t that Colombia lacked fight. Operating with two midfield destroyers, Wilmar Barrios and Carlos Sanchez, Pekerman largely neutralised Venezuela’s attacking threat. But with 26 fouls registered in the first half alone – a record for a Russia 2018 qualifier – any rhythm was sucked from the game, and Colombia had to rely upon the odd burst of individual skill from Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado – again frustratingly playing for himself – and debutant Yimmi Chara.
In short Colombia lacked the sort of clarity that captain James Rodriguez has so frequently provided for his country in recent years. Benched against Venezuela due to an injury picked up in pre-season for new club Bayern Munich, he now faces a race against time to return before this Tuesday’s crunch tie with Brazil. “He’s not even reported back for training yet,” one German journalist told me. “Bayern are bemused as to why he’s even travelling.”
But if comments made by Pekerman in his pre-match press conference are to be believed, James will be back in the starting XI for Colombia vs Brazil. James may not be 100% fit, but the 69-year-old Colombia coach has no doubt that the Tricolor look a pallid colour without him. For such an important tie, the man who’s had a hand in half of Colombia’s goals these qualifiers – four assists and five goals – is well worth the risk.
Yet Brazil arrive in Colombia in imperious form. Nine wins on the bounce in the qualifiers since manager Tite took over from Dunga a little over a year ago, the Selecao were the first country to book a place in Russia back in March. Now 11 points clear of everyone else, they arrive in Barranquilla with their reputation as a world heavyweight restored.
“We all know just how important this game is. We’ll be facing one of the best countries in the world,” AC Milan centre back Cristian Zapata explained. “But it will feel so good to beat them.”
When up against it, Colombia can usually rely upon the hot and sweaty Estadio Metropolitano in Barranquilla to swing tricky ties in their favour. In fact, six years after taking over, Pekerman has only ever lost one home game in charge of Colombia (versus Argentina). But even that advantage will count for little against a Brazil side that have spent the last few days training in Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian jungle. Unlike most, Brazil have come moderately prepared.
Instead Colombia must try to achieve something they haven’t managed throughout these qualifiers: beat one of the top five-placed sides.
“Making loads of changes can destabilise the team,” said Pekerman in his press conference. “It’s therefore much healthier to make just a few tweaks.”
In training Pekerman has sought to address the lack of control shown against Venezuela in midfield by bringing back Abel Aguilar. A curious case, Aguilar often struggles to even get on the bench at club side Deportivo Cali. But at international level he knows the Pekerman system better than anyone and will be tasked with threading play between the midfield lines.
Also expected is a change in defence. Neither Cristian Zapata nor Oscar Murillo looked convincing against Venezuela. With Yerry Mina missing through injury, Pekerman will again have a look at Davinson Sanchez. Player of the year at Ajax in Holland last season and now Tottenham’s most expensive ever signing, Sanchez has the potential to be one of the best centre backs in the world. Alongside the more experienced Zapata, their job will be to keep another costly transfer quiet: Brazilian superstar Neymar.
Exactly twenty-four years ago to the day, Colombia’s World Cup hopes also hung in the balance. On 5 September 1993 in Buenos Aires they faced an Argentina side unbeaten in 34 games. A win would secure qualification but what happened was one of the most remarkable scorelines ever seen in football history. Colombia’s astonishing 5-0 romp turned heads everywhere and put the country on the world football map. Today against a similarly rampant Brazil, it’s time to write a new chapter.
By Carl Worswick