Besides Costa Rica, Colombia were the surprise package of the 2014 World Cup.
Their journey to the quarter-finals propelled James Rodríguez to a Golden Boot and a move to Real Madrid. It also put the team into the hearts of the world with their group goal celebrations.
Qualifying for back-to-back tournaments is a big deal for a nation that didn’t make it to the first three World Cups of the millennium. Colombia qualified for three in a row in the 1990s, but their only outing before that had been Chile in 1962.
Manager José Pékerman knows that it will be difficult to match his side’s performance in 2014, the nation’s best-ever showing. Their previous best was reaching the round of 16 in 1990; all other World Cup appearances saw them go out in the group stage.
Road to the World Cup
Despite the high bar set in Brazil, there will be a sense of relief that they are in Russia at all. Colombia only secured their place in Russia on the final day of qualifying with a point in Peru.
They were part of a group of nations whose qualification hopes came down to the death: Argentina (who finished on 28 points), themselves (27), Peru (26) and Chile (26).
Los Cafeteros swept aside CONMEBOL’s weaker sides, taking 16 of 18 points against bottom three Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
However, their results against the top sides in the continent will be worrying going into a major tournament. In six matches against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina they took just two points, conceding 12 goals.
And although they beat France 3-2 in March, their two most recent friendlies have seen them draw 0-0 with Australia and Egypt.
There is something of an expectation of disappointment among some Colombians, and manager Pékerman has said that the most important thing is just to be at the World Cup at all.
“The success of a country in the long term is measured by qualifying for the tournament,” he told World Soccer, “and by avoiding going years and years without qualifying; that is how you lose a generation, which subsequently then affects confidence.”
Previously wedded to a 4-2-3-1, there were some signs in the friendly against France that Pékerman might experiment with elements of a two-striker system.
The main requirements of their set-up will be to figure out how best to utilise Rodríguez. He’s framed by quality players, and on paper Colombia look better in 2018 than they did in Brazil.
They have Rademel Falcao available, who was injured in 2014; Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Sánchez in midfield; options of Cristian Zapata, Yerry Mina, and Davinson Sánchez at centre-back.
The full-backs should be a source of width, with the attacking midfielders to Rodríguez’s left and right cutting inside. This can leave space in behind them though, with little back-tracking from midfield to help out the centre-backs.
For the most part, this seems to be combatted by defending in a mid-block, staying relatively compact in the middle of the park, doing little high pressing, nor dropping too deep.
Though it will be in the back of the mind during a summer tournament, Colombia will be aware that their squad is an ageing one.
World Cup 2018 squads number-crunched by age and experience pic.twitter.com/bXf74q26od
— Nick Harris (@sportingintel) June 4, 2018
They have an average age of over 28 and many of their best players are getting towards the end of their peak years – Falcao (32); Cristian Zapata and Carlos Bacca (31); Cuadrado (30); David Ospina (29).
While this is more of a long-term problem than a short-term one, there will still be questions about whether these ageing stars will be able to sustain their performances over games in quick succession.
Despite the attacking talents at their disposal, Colombia weren’t one of the most dangerous sides in qualifying. They scored only the sixth-most goals (21) in the CONMEBOL qualification stage, although this more than Argentina (19).
It’s clear that Rodríguez is the focal point, and – like Argentina – having such a star might be something to struggle against.
As tempting as it is to focus the attack through them, it’s such an obvious plan that the opponents are able to target it. After all, this is exactly what Colombia did to Neymar in 2014, and it was two Brazilian set-piece goals that beat them, not the talented striker.
However, it was Rodríguez that led Colombia’s goal-scoring (six) and assist-making (four) charts in qualifying. He also took the second-most shots per 90 minutes for the team during qualifying (3.55), behind only Luis Muriel (3.72).
Falcao was left as Colombia’s third-most frequent shot-taker, on 2.28 per 90 minutes – not a high figure for a striker as talented and usually prolific as him. Cuadrado’s stats from qualifying were also mediocre, making just ten key passes in the equivalent of 12.6 games (1137 minutes).
Star player: James Rodríguez
It’s fair to say that Rodríguez’s career since the last World Cup hasn’t gone as it looked like it might when he moved to Real Madrid.
His goal contribution was actually very good, when he made it onto the pitch. Combining his goals and assists, he played a part in 1.02 league goals per 90 minutes in 2014/15, 0.89 in 2015/16 and 1.07 in 2016/17.
The problem was the amount of minutes he was getting. By his final season in Madrid, he was playing just 35 per cent of possible league minutes, only starting 13 matches. Injuries in 2015 kept him side-lined for around a third of the year, but he also clearly began to fall out of favour.
A move to Bayern Munich has seen him get more game time, and he’s linking up play there in a way Colombians will be hoping he can do at the World Cup too.
Between key passes and his own efforts, Rodríguez contributed 4.96 shots per 90 for the German champions in 2017/18. His expected goals assisted per 90 of 0.3 was the sixth best among Bundesliga attackers and the 24th-highest rate in Europe’s big five leagues.
He, and his team, will just be hoping he doesn’t get ‘the Neymar treatment’.
Manager: José Pékerman
While many nations have chopped and changed managers since the last World Cup, Pékerman has been in charge since 2012. That makes him Colombia’s longest-serving manager and means that he’s spent an awful lot of time with some of these players, compared to other international managers.
He’d spent a lot of time with his players in his previous job, managing his homeland Argentina, as well. Between 1995 and 2001 he coached Argentina to three Under-20 World Cup wins, and by the time he managed the men’s side in Germany in 2006 he had coached 16 of his 23 squad players in the youth ranks.
Argentina reached the quarter-finals but went out to the hosts on penalties. A 19-year-old Lionel Messi, who had appeared sporadically throughout the tournament up to that point, was kept on the bench, much to Argentina’s collective dismay.
Having reached the quarter-finals in his past two outings as manager at the World Cup, will ‘third time’s the charm’ mean Colombia could be dark horses?
Dark horses? In reality, probably not.
Though the squad is better on paper than it was in 2014, performances in qualifying were poor, and the noises coming from Colombians are generally pessimistic.
A group of Japan, Poland, and Senegal means that they should get through the group at least, which could set up a meeting with England in the round of 16.
In theory, Colombia are good enough to reach the quarter-finals, but what happens on the pitch could be another story altogether.