Pekerman making all the right moves
They imposed a booze ban, tightened driving restrictions and threw 30,000 police officers out on the streets of capital city Bogota, but nothing could stymie the wild celebrations that swept Colombia following the team's 2-1 win over Ivory Coast to edge Los Cafeteros tantalizingly close to the round of 16.
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The Mane Garrincha Stadium was again a sea of yellow as legions of Colombian fans roared their side to victory under the balmy sunshine in Brazil's capital.
That this victory occurred on June 19 will be of special significance for Colombia, whose only other appearance in the last 16 came courtesy of Freddy Rincon's last-gasp strike against Germany on the exact same day in 1990.
Back then, the South Americans would be later dumped out of the Italy tournament after a 2-1 extra-time defeat to Cameroon. But more than two decades on, and following consecutive victories at a finals for the first time, Colombia's colourful legion of fans are now left dreaming whether the team can go one step further.
Pekerman paid tribute to the great 1990 Colombia side in his postmatch preference, describing the group led by iconic captain Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama an "incredible team." But the Argentine coach refused to be drawn into comparisons between his side and that of yesteryear.
"We cannot erase memories of a side that swept world football back then playing such great football," the 64-year-old coach said. "But we will not get carried away thinking we can go further than them. We still have a crucial game against Japan to think about."
Those words of caution are nothing unusual for a coach whose 2½-year term in charge of Colombia has been marked by reticence and keeping expectations under wraps. Having lost key striker Radamel Falcao to a lengthy knee injury just three weeks ago, Pekerman again fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Teo Gutierrez left on his own as the main striker.
Against Greece it was considered a bold move to rip up the flexible 4-2-2-2 system Pekerman had employed so successfully in coasting through the qualifiers. Playing one striker had been tried before, and it had failed miserably as Colombia flopped to a surprise defeat in Venezuela back in March 2013. Back then, Pekerman had admitted he had been wrong to make that change, but it demonstrated it was a switch he had long toyed with.
In his postmatch news conference, he expressed his relief that in the short time he had had to work on a new system, his players had assumed the challenge of replacing somebody so crucial as Falcao.
"It is not easy to substitute somebody like Falcao, who was so important for us in qualifying. This was only made possible due to our players each accepting responsibility, commitment and overcoming the pressure. But, admittedly, there is always doubt when you make such a change," Pekerman explained.
Of course, the daring move had been a risk, and it's still perhaps a little too early to judge the merits of Pekerman's drastic switch.
But it isn't just in the one-striker formation that Pekerman has demonstrated his worth. Rodriguez, who was again voted man of the match against Ivory Coast, is a product of the Pekerman regime.
While true that the youngster made his Colombia debut shortly before the Argentine took over, it is under Pekerman that he has flourished. One of the 64-year-old coach's first moves upon taking over was to hand Rodriguez the No. 10 shirt. It was a big act of faith in such a young player, but after playing out on the left wing throughout qualifying, Pekerman then shifted the Monaco man inside and made him the focal point of Colombia's attacks. Whenever the team has been at its free-flowing best, Rodriguez's vision has usually been behind it. Against Greece and Ivory Coast, his roaming role across the front line has made him one of the revelations of the tournament so far.
One of the other crucial roles of a manager is to make decisions at exactly the right time. Postgame, Pekerman confirmed he had been "convinced" that Quintero would provide the spark when he set the youngster on after 53 minutes.
"We knew the right time to introduce him, and so it's very pleasing to witness his performance," Pekerman beamed.
This is not boastful talk about an act that has already occurred; that really isn't Pekerman's style. Instead, like a schoolmaster exalting the latest of his star pupils, the coach drew on his experiences from coaching his native Argentina to inspire his young charges to change a game that was hanging in a delicate position.
The FC Porto midfielder's introduction early in the second half was a masterstroke, but Pekerman had done something similar before. Back in qualifying against Chile, the coach had changed the dynamics of a match Colombia were losing 1-0. Colombia needed the win, so Pekerman brought on Macnelly Torres, a classic No. 10, in a defensive midfield role. The Colombian press was perplexed; nobody could understand quite how the Argentine could field a creative player in such an unfamiliar role. But Colombia ran out 3-1 winners, and Torres was the catalyst for that change in sitting deep and controlling possession.
There were similarities in Quintero's task on Thursday against Ivory Coast. His goal was just the icing on the cake for a player who assumed the responsibility that Pekerman mentions with so much maturity. Last year Quintero was playing at the U20 World Cup finals in Turkey and had only a handful of games to his name. But Pekerman, perhaps mindful of his decision to not use superstar Lionel Messi at the 2006 finals, trusted his instincts.
Clearly, Pekerman has had his fair share of good fortune with so many great, young players emerging and blossoming at the same time, but it takes somebody shrewd to craft those ideas together in a collective and cohesive team unit. Pekerman has so far achieved that, and if Colombia go on to outperform the team from 1990, it will be no small part due to the Argentine coach whom Colombians have adopted as one of their own.