Falcao absence gives Colombia options
In the first half of their game with Ivory Coast, when Colombia sliced their way through the opposing defence with a lightning three-man counterattack, James Rodriguez put in a cross and, from close range, with just the goalkeeper to beat, Teofilo Gutierrez sliced horribly wide.
All around the world, people would have been on their feet, yelling that had Radamel Falcao Garcia been fit enough to play, Colombia would have been ahead. It is a fair point. Those are the kind of chances that Falcao loves -- the ball played quickly behind the defence for him to attack the goal. There are few better in the world game in such situations.
At that moment, Colombia missed their starting centre-forward, who was unable to recover in time from a serious knee injury.
There is another aspect, though, in which the team may be benefiting from his absence.
While a force of nature when he faces the goal, Falcao's back-to-goal link play is nowhere near as proficient. As a consequence, coach Jose Pekerman has always been reluctant to play him up front on his own. When it was tried in qualifying away to Venezuela, it was not a success. And so Falcao was paired with Gutierrez, whose ability to move out to the flanks and link the play was an important part of the team.
Pekerman, then, was unable to pick a five-man midfield. Without Falcao, that has become an option. Gutierrez has been alone up top. Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar hold the fort in central midfield. Juan Guillermo Cuadrado provides blistering pace and width down the right. Rodriguez, always the most important player on the team, is able to roam the field, bestriding the pitch like a young prince. And there is room for Victor Ibarbo, whose versatility makes him a key asset.
A five-man midfield is an interesting option because when Colombia play the pitch looks very big. Captain Mario Yepes has been a magnificent centre-back; his leadership is important, and he is still capable of making vital defensive contributions. But at the age of 38, his lack of pace is a problem. To protect against that, the defensive line drops deep, leaving the midfield with plenty of space to cover.
Ibarbo on the left of midfield plays an important role. Some consider him a striker, but for the national team he works ferociously hard. His capacity to drop deep helps protect the left side of the defence, where Yepes is next to Pablo Armero, an attack-minded full-back.
It was after Ibarbo was substituted that Ivory Coast began to make inroads down that side, especially with the forward runs of Serge Aurier. Santiago Arias was brought on for Armero in a bid to tighten up that flank, but as a natural right-back, he had little help and lots of problems.
The flip side was that, in place of Armero, Colombia turned to the left-footed skills of young Juan Fernando Quintero, a wonderfully talented, old-fashioned playmaker who knitted the side together with his passing and scored the goal that turned out to be the winner.
Combinations between Quintero and Rodriguez, the two left-footed young lions of the Colombian midfield, could turn out to be an important part of the team's campaign. If Falcao were present, it would be hard to accommodate both of them in the lineup.
A final point on that miss by Gutierrez: Pekerman has other options for the lone striker position. Jackson Martinez came on for the final few minutes against Greece. And after his impressive form in the warm-up games, it is a surprise that Carlos Bacca has yet to make an appearance. Maybe that will come late in the competition, as Colombia prove there is life after Radamel Falcao Garcia.