5 inches. That’s how far they were from crashing out of the World Cup in the round of 16. Had Mauricio Pinnilla’s shot at Estadio Minerao deflected in, the tournament would be having a different story altogether. Brazil, it’s safe to say, haven’t exactly had a great outing.
Conversely, in the quite riveting round of 16, where six out of the eight ties went into extra-time, Colombia were the only team to win their match convincingly. Nevermind that they were up against Uruguay, who’re formidable at the very least.
We’re left with one-eighth of what has been the most magnificent international tournament in memory. When the tournament began, most would’ve hoped for a “stronger” team to play Brazil in the quarters, but truth to be told, not many have been as strong as Colombia this time. Scolari would take heart from the fact that his team have already faced a mighty stern opponent in Chile and managed to sneak past them. It wasn’t exactly a top display, but victory is what matters at the end of the day. They’re more than warmed up for the big games now.
James Rodriguez and co. have pretty much breezed through the World Cup so far. A group of Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan isn’t an easy one to progress through, let alone top. Colombia did that and more. Uruguay were taken care of with aplomb and it’ll be unfair to say Luis Suarez’s presence would’ve made a telling difference. They were that good.
Not even Suarez in his Ghana 2010 mood could’ve kept that out.
Tactically, Jose Peckerman has made Colombia extremely disciplined. They’re strong at the back and look menacing whenever they manage to get the ball into the final-third of the pitch. Both Pablo Armero and Juan Zuniga are enterprising full-backs who’re adept at making marauding runs forward. For perspective, both spent more time with the ball in the opposition half in their match against Uruguay than in their own. Freddy Guarin and Abel Aguilar are likely to be asked to prevent Neymar and co seeing too much of the ball in the final third. The idea behind this would be to allow the attacking belt to weave magic around the rather creaky Brazil defense. Movement can cause problems to the best of defenses and Colombia are mastering it. The front four of Jackson Martinez, Teo Gutierrez, James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado keep interchanging positions throughout the match, often leading to defenders having to play on the back-foot. As if this is not bad enough, every one of them is excellent on the ball.
In Juan Cuadrado, they have a ridiculously mobile winger who loves running at defenders. As his heat-map against Uruguay will show you, movement is one of his stronger aspects.
He tops the assist charts for the World Cup with four to his name. There is a small matter of his teammate topping the scoring charts with five, but lest I digress into waxing eloquent about Ha-mes Rodriguez, I shall stick to the motive of this piece. The duo often drop back to receive the ball and draw the midfielders out of position. Paulinho and Fernandinho are in for a hard, hard time.
This is exactly where Brazil would miss Luis Gustavo, who has been quite the unheralded hero for them in this tournament. Out through suspension for picking up two yellow cards, his 17 interceptions in the World Cup haven’t yet been matched and Scolari would be gutted at his inability to send him on in a situation like this. Paulinho has been ordinary at best and would risk getting exposed against the movement of the Colombia midfield. While James Rodriguez has surely been the shining star, it could be Cuadrado and his pace which unlocks the Brazilian defence.
The majority of the attention would be focused towards a lanky Brazil number 10, though. With four goals and and an intangible impact on the Selecao’s World Cup campaign, Neymar has been the fulcrum of the nation’s hopes. The lad can take pressure, there is no doubt about that. He stepped forward to take a massive fifth penalty in the shootout against Chile after having played close to two hours with an injured leg. The quality of the spot-kick said more about his temperament than any number of nutmegs and stepovers ever will. He was well and truly negated by Chile throughout the match and would be hungry to turn on a display akin to the one against Cameroon. Whether he’ll finally find able support in Oscar, Hulk and the otherwise shambolic Fred is anybody’s guess. It’s been a lone battle so far.
It’s Brazil vs Colombia. Neymar vs James Rodriguez. Two of the best young talents in the world who seem intent on stamping themselves into history. Brazil haven’t lost a competitive game in their country since 1986. Colombia have never played the quarter-finals of a World Cup. The elements, tradition and history are all seemingly forcing a prediction in favor of the Selecao, but in a tournament like the one we’re experiencing right now, it would be extremely naive to make such a predication. Here’s to another fantastic match!