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 By Tim Vickery

Jose Pekerman, Colombia face big challenges in qualifying for Russia

As the focus temporarily switches from club to national team football, Colombia are an intriguing team to watch.

The 2014 World Cup, said their Argentine coach Jose Pekerman, would mark the moment when Colombian football took a definitive place at the game's top table.

They unearthed the star of the tournament in James Rodriguez and reached the quarterfinals for the first time. These days, Los Cafeteros have the potential to fly even higher.

First, of course, they have to qualify for Russia, and the upcoming two games -- rounds 15 and 16 in a total of 18 -- will go some way towards defining their fate.

The Colombians currently lie second in the CONMEBOL table. Two wins will haul them up to 30 points, almost certainly enough to secure their place.

Two defeats, though, and they will be caught in the middle of the dogfight.

They are only four points clear of the team in sixth place, outside the qualification slots.

If they were to pick up no points from the forthcoming two fixtures, they will probably drop to fifth -- the playoff position -- but could even fall all the way to sixth.

Over the next few days, then, the stakes are high.

Colombia will be tested by teams at both ends of the table. First, on Thursday, they travel to take on bottom team Venezuela -- a task not as easy as it might appear.

The Venezuelans have been buoyed by their achievement in reaching the final of the World Under-20 Cup in June and will see the Colombia game as a chance to build for the long term.

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Five days later, in the searing afternoon heat of Barranquilla, Colombia are at home to top-of-the-table Brazil.

Here, they will hope to benefit from the fact that the runaway leaders have already booked their place in Russia.

This would certainly seem to have had an effect on Brazil's logistical planning.

Their opening game is at home to Ecuador in Porto Alegre, the hometown of national team coach Tite, who has done such an impressive job since taking over a little more than a year ago.

But there is a cost for celebrating the team's early qualification in such a venue: Porto Alegre is at one end of the continent. Barranquilla is at the other.

Brazil have given themselves a marathon journey, some seven and a half hours, before what promises to be one of the toughest games of the campaign. It is up to Colombia to take advantage.

Pekerman's side, though, would still seem to be looking for a blend.

It would seem fair to say that after the hopes engendered by their 2014 World Cup performances, Colombia have not lived up to expectations.

They disappointed in the 2015 Copa America and flattered to deceive a year later in the Copa Centenario.

The fact that they are second in the 2018 qualification table is probably more a reflection on an overall lack of quality than a comment on the current team's prowess.

They have managed just 18 goals in the 14 rounds played so far, and Pekerman has used a total of 41 players -- a high number and worrisome for a team which has not changed coach.

Jose Pekerman's Colombia team will get big tests against Venezuela and Brazil,.

The conclusion is clear; Pekerman is not yet happy with his team and keeps switching in the hope of stumbling on a formula he likes.

Some more new names have been called up for the current squad; notably there has been a recall for lanky China-based playmaker Giovanni Moreno and a debut inclusion for the in form striker of the moment, Yimmi Chara of Junior Barranquilla.

Moreover, there is an obvious doubt over the fitness of Rodriguez, who has missed the start of the season with Bayern Munich, his new German club.

There is no need to fret, however.

A group of promising youngsters are coming through; such as recent Tottenham record-signing Davinson Sanchez at centre-back, and Boca Junior's tigerish central midfielder Wilmar Barrios.

And there is enough talent across all positions to form a team able to compete at the highest level.

Pekerman is also well aware that there are no extra prizes for qualifying in style, that the World Cup is all about becoming good at the right time.

First, of course, comes the task of qualifying, and the next few days will determine whether this will be an easy stroll for Colombia or an agonising run into a fierce headwind.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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