James Rodriguez was the first of Colombia’s players to report for international duty ahead of this week’s World Cup qualifier against Brazil. He was clearly keen to return.
It has been a year since Rodriguez played for his country, in the astonishing 6-1 capitulation to Ecuador that brought to an end the reign of Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz. Under replacement Reinaldo Rueda, the team have gone eight rounds unbeaten but have won just two games. Last month they fought out three consecutive goalless draws, hence the return of Rodriguez.
With just four games behind him for his new club, Al Rayyan of Qatar, Rodriguez can hardly be in ideal physical condition. But Colombia need him. They are simply not the same side without him.
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One of the outstanding performances at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, by any team, was Colombia’s destruction of Poland. It was also the only time they had a fit Rodriguez. Without him, they looked ordinary in the last World Cup and they have looked ordinary ever since. And ordinary might not be enough to get them to Qatar 2022.
Thursday’s opponents, Brazil, are all but mathematically guaranteed a place. The only team they have so far failed to beat is Colombia, who held them to a 0-0 draw last month in the steaming afternoon heat of Barranquilla. A win in Sao Paulo on Thursday will carry Brazil over the line. Colombia will presumably be happy with another draw. But looking at future games — they host Paraguay the following Tuesday — they are in desperate need of attacking inspiration.
Hence the recall of Rodriguez, and the shudders felt at the weekend after the news that in form Radamel Falcao had picked up an injury in Spain with Rayo Vallecano. Porto winger Luis Diaz will surely recall the stunning goal he scored against Brazil in the recent Copa America, and coach Rueda is also widening his net, having a look at fresh options such as LAFC striker Cristian Arango.
But as he prepared to take on Brazil, the methodical Rueda will have concerns at the other end of the field. The defence that has kept three consecutive clean sheets will need to be reconstructed. Centre-backs Yerry Mina and Carlos Cuesta have formed a fine combination. Both are injured, along with right-back Stefan Medina. Colombia will have to patch up a back four and send it out against the runaway leaders, hoping that Wilmar Barrios can win the midfield battle and keep the Brazilians at bay.
With Brazil all but over the line and Argentina not far behind them, most of the spotlights now seek out the teams in the dogfight behind them. With the big two seemingly assured of a World Cup slot, that leaves two and a half places up for grabs — and everyone, with the exception of bottom of the table Venezuela, is still in the hunt.
Colombia lie fourth, ahead on goal difference of Uruguay, the team who currently sit in the play-off spot. Uruguay have spent nearly 16 years under the command of Oscar Washington Tabarez, and it is indeed possible that these next few days might mark the end of his epic reign.
After collapsing last month against Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay may already have changed their coach had the next two games not been so tough. On Friday they host Argentina, followed four days later by the feared trip to the extreme altitude of La Paz to take on Bolivia. It would appear that a possible replacement has been lined up, but it was thought unwise to expose him to such an intimidating start. So Tabarez has the chance to save himself, firstly against the Argentina team who brushed his men aside with such ease just a month ago.
There seems little chance that Tabarez will repeat the three centre-back formation that failed so badly in Buenos Aires. Argentina’s strength is their midfield passing. They need to be blocked higher up the pitch. Lionel Messi may not be fully fit for Argentina, but the absence of dynamic midfielder Federico Valverde is a blow for Uruguay. The loss of striker Edinson Cavani, though, could even prove a blessing in disguise. It will allow Uruguay to pack the midfield and also use wingers to supply Luis Suarez.
If Colombia and Uruguay drop points against the big two, then Ecuador will be more comfortable in third place if they can win at home to Venezuela. On paper this should be a banker. But Venezuela did manage to beat Ecuador in Caracas last month and, at last, they have Salomon Rondon back to lead the attack. Ecuador, moreover, have been hit by injuries and suspensions.
In order to have a look at some of his alternatives, Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro fixed up a friendly against Mexico, and was pleased with several players after a 3-2 win. Rangy striker Djorkaeff Reasco, the son of a former international left-back, came off the bench to set up the winner, and retains his place in the squad. Failing to beat Venezuela at home would be a huge blow to morale. This game, then, is a fascinating test of Ecuador’s young side.
Bolivia also arranged a recent friendly, and came away encouraged from a 1-0 win over El Salvador last Friday. After wins in the last two qualifiers, Bolivia have picked up some momentum — but to have any chance of making the cut, they must pick up more points away from home, starting with Thursday’s visit to Peru. There is no way that both of these teams can make the cut. But one of them might, which makes this game almost a cup final.
And the same applies to the clash of Paraguay and Chile. The home advantage is with Paraguay, but the momentum is with Chile after two consecutive wins. Paraguay, in contrast, are coming off two defeats and three games without a goal. They have responded by switching one Argentine coach, Eduardo Berizzo, for another is Guillermo Barros Schelotto. There has been almost no change in the squad line up, so can the new man get different results from the same players?
There is much riding on the question — and there is plenty riding on all of the matches in this thirteen round of the ever intriguing, always competitive South American marathon.