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Quarterfinals Day 1: Favorites win through

Five Aside Jul 4, 2014
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 Posted by Damian Didonato
Jun 15, 2014

Colombia overcome their stage fright

Our expert panel analyse Colombia's comfortable win over Greece and the Cafeteros' head coach Jose Pekerman shares his thoughts on the victory.

BELO HORIZONTE, Brasil -- Sixteen years of disappointment for Colombian soccer finally came to an end as Pablo Armero scored the first goal only five minutes in. The first cause for celebration in the World Cup happened faster than expected, as the Colombian team achieved an invaluable 3-0 win against Greece in Belo Horizonte's Mineirao Stadium, reassuring the team.

Players and fans were optimistic ahead of Colombia's debut, but few imagined an outcome of this kind against an opponent hard to defeat, at least on paper. The South Americans won 3-0 and played with the authority of a team who knows what they are capable of doing, but are also aware of their limitations. The performance was not superb, but enough was done to win by an emphatic margin, which is of key importance at the beginning of a tournament like this.

Colombia thrashed Greece because they were able to exploit their goal-scoring opportunities, remained calm when the Greeks attacked and adapted to the changing game conditions. Mistakes were made, obviously, but much more important was the 3-0 win in their debut at the World Cup. First, it must be made clear: Colombians should celebrate this victory for what it is -a return to life. But they should also be aware of the National Team's weaknesses.

When reviewing their virtues, James Rodríguez is the first name that comes to mind. Cucuta's midfielder had a dream debut in the most important championship. He was the leader on the field, as expected, and the role did not weigh on him. He even thrived on it. James was the leading figure for his ability to play, and because he participated in every Colombian attacking move.

Rodríguez led the Colombia with style and accuracy, and also dropped back to help in defence. Besides being an attacking midfielder and playmaker, he was very effective in ball recovery, as he was always first to get behind the ball. His passing was accurate and Colombia played at a pace set by him. In this sport, that's the best pace to play at, playing with your head, and thinking about each pass. During their World Cup debut, the Monaco player demonstrated why the hopes of the national team rest on him, forming great partnerships with Ibarbo, Teófilo, Aguilar, Arias and above all Juan Fernando Cuadrado.

The team need to correct their defensive flaws

Another figure that stood out was the Fiorentina midfielder. Cuadrado displayed his talents that we admire him for, and just like the rest of the squad he did not succumb to first-match nerves. Well, perhaps he was nervous but he certainly managed to control it. He was always running down the right-wing and he played a crucial role in Colombia's first goal. The right-wing, made up of the Zúñiga-Cuadrado partnership, was one of Colombia's strongest points.

"The coach had planned for a game that as it turns out went exactly as we had hoped, which has left us feeling calm, collected and above all confident," Mario Yepes said in the mixed zone after the game. Although Colombia achieved a great result they did not play as they normally do. Colombia usually dominate possession and are on the attack. If, as the captain says, this is how the coach had planned it, then it was stroke of genius. He chose to let Greece have the ball, knowing full well that they lacked skills to handle it and in the meantime Colombia concentrated on creating spaces.

Colombia fans in Belo Horizonte celebrate a decisive victory over Greece.
Colombia fans in Belo Horizonte celebrate a decisive victory over Greece.

The colorful side shot out of the blocks, and scored within the first minutes of the game. Such an early goal instilled a sense of calm amongst the players, worth its weight in gold considering this was their debut game and their comeback to World Cup football. The early goal calmed nerves and allowed the team to execute Pekerman's plan in a calm and collected fashion. That's to say that without Armero's goal perhaps this might have been quite a different story.

For those familiar with this team's style of play, we know that this way of playing does not come naturally to them. The coach's choice to play like this was based upon their opponent, not on personal choice. And without a doubt it was a great choice. It is for this reason that we should not concern ourselves with the lack of possession or game plays. This national team has variety and they know how to handle the ball like few others do. Therefore going up against the Ivory Coast we should not expect to see the same tactics.

What's concerning is the lack of players getting back. Time after time, attention has been drawn to this area of weakness. On several occasions Colombia found themselves undefended, something which could prove to be fatal in a World Cup game. There were plays in which the central midfielders failed to get back, which left the defenders one on one with their attackers. Today, Abel Aguilar did not have a good game but Sanchez played a crucial role in winning the ball back.

Overall, the balance is positive. Colombia got rid of their first match nerves with a convincing win, which demonstrated the national team's authority and eagerness to fight. Furthermore, they gave great joy to the 50,000 Colombians who transformed the Mineirao into something resembling the Metropolitano of Barranquilla. Today, Colombia were the home team and they have begun to live their World Cup dream.

Damian Didonato

Damian Didonato is an ESPN.com Argentina editor based in Buenos Aires. He covered the U20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011 and blogs on O Blog 2014. Follow him on Twitter @damiandidonato.

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