Yepes could be the key for Colombia
Three times in a row, Mario Yepes was part of a Colombia side that came desperately close to making it through to the play-off for a World Cup place. But in 2002, 2006 and 2010 they lost out by the narrowest of margins -- and always to Uruguay.
It must, then, have given Yepes enormous pleasure to be on the field when Colombia beat Uruguay 2-0 to qualify for their first ever World Cup quarterfinal. At the age of 38, Mario Yepes has got there at last. Now on Friday in Fortaleza he will play the biggest game of his entire career -- arguably even bigger than the final of the 2001 Copa America, which Colombia won for the first time. It is also the biggest test of his long career. Brazil will come gunning for him.
Colombia protect Yepes by defending with a very deep line, meaning that anything played behind him usually goes through to the keeper. He is seldom drawn out into open space where his understandable lack of pace can be exposed. Defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez protects the space in front of him; Colombia have been at their most effective defensively when Victor Ibarbo plays on the left of midfield, since he has the physical capacity to track back and help out left-back Pablo Armero, thus further reducing the space that Yepes has to cover.
But this way of defending has a number of implications against Brazil. For one, it means that there should be space for Neymar to pick up the ball and run at the Colombian back line. One possible response here would be for Carlos Sanchez to perform a man-marking role. Three years ago in the Copa America, I saw Sanchez get the better of Lionel Messi in a splendid one-on-one duel when Colombia held Argentina to a goalless draw. But if Neymar moves back over to his old position on the left wing, how far will Sanchez follow him? If Neymar drags him all the way across, then the space in front of Yepes should open up.
And Brazil will almost certainly look to play the ball quickly out to the right flank, presumably for Hulk to have a run at Armero and Yepes. Brazil can be very direct, consistently bypassing midfield with their centre-backs hitting long, diagonal passes. This might be a game when such a tactic works in their favour.
There is also the risk that defending so deep will give Brazil the opportunity to win free kicks in dangerous situations. And perhaps the biggest question is this: what happens if Colombia go a goal down? This is a state of affairs that coach Jose Pekerman's team have not had to confront so far in the World Cup. They have never had to chase a game. Should they find themselves in this situation against Brazil, then do they trust Yepes to be able to defend higher up the pitch as they press for an equaliser? Does Yepes trust himself to do so?
Yepes is well aware that along with his virtues -- leadership, reading of the game, timing in the tackle -- there is a vulnerability as well. In the World Cup qualifier away to Chile almost two years ago he took himself off at half-time, telling the coach that he was so close to a red card that it would be in the team's best interests if he was substituted. It proved a wise decision; a 1-0 half-time defeat turned into a 3-1 full-time victory.
Another win this time would almost certainly be the finest achievement in the history of the Colombian national team. Defeat would surely end the international career of Yepes, who has crossed swords before with Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Back in 1999, Yepes was a centre-back in the Deportivo Cali side that reached the final of the Copa Libertadores. Their opponents were Palmeiras of Brazil, coached by Scolari. The two-legged tie went to penalties -- Scolari's side won the shoot-out. Yepes will seek to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and that he and Colombia are the ones making history instead.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.