Updated: Jun 26, 2018
Feeling nervy about marking perhaps the world's most dangerous #9 in must-win game? Debut a neophyte center back duo in their early 20s, get a clean sheet, and add the game winner for good measure. Columbia's line-up roulette spin comes up roses.
I expected a furiously contested match today, with two teams on the brink of elimination, thunderous fan support, and the Switzerland-Brasil referee, who seemed the perfect last ingredient for something combustible, especially with the beefy Polish side. After a nervy start, Colombia notched three beauties in the course of turning the Poles into a side whom we barely recognized from the Senegal opener, let alone a ruthless qualifying run.
Neither side began the match well and Colombia’s insistence on crossing at the first opportunity-- right into the teeth of a well-set Polish defense--was numbing. They seemed to want every pass to deliver the goal, almost a first-date awkwardness to their decision-making. A reverse ball from James nearly picked out a runner after about 25 minutes, a sign that Colombia might yet be settling into the game, and then a more poised set-piece (after a run of lemons) unlocked the door, a buttery James chip met by the debutante Mina, a Barca bench-warmer who cooly glanced the cross in.
From that point on, it was really all Colombia. They shackled Lewandowski, began to chew up the midfield, and liquefied Poland into a jelly through a combination of possession, tackling, and great recovery runs. Falcao was unleashed by the excellent Quintero, a great look after Falcao’s persistent explorations for the second, and James’s brilliant release to Cuardado yielding a 3rd. I thought Cuardado would blow it but it was a world-class finish. Poland just had no answer, and Valderrama and Higuita regaled in it, still trademarking the 'dos and living it up. For a day, at least, national footballing trauma was denied in glorious fashion, and Colombia’s fans painted the Urals that distinctive yellow hue. A few takeaways below.
Colombia’s centerbacks--all of 23 and 22 years of age--were fantastic. Long, fast, very tight to Lewandowski without fouling and giving up dangerous free kicks, and monstrous on set pieces going both ways, they cooly shimmered in the spotlight. Mina is probably only known to Barca afficianados, barely getting a game there, but his performance today probably upped his transfer value $20 million with this one performance. Davinson Sanchez was superb, as well, and if Alderwiereld is sold Sanchez surely looks ready (though Alderweireld has been great for Spurts, mind you). I don’t know how Carlos Sanchez gets his spot back after today; Mina has earned it….
Which brings us to back again to youth and the recurrent problem of coaches staying with players past their prime. The C. Sanchez/Murillo to Mina/D. Sanchez switch shaved 17 years off the backline alone, and when Uribe came in for the unfortunate Aguilar (shear another 6 years), it coincided with a marked improvement in Colombia’s play. Uribe had far more bite on the tackle and surged forward with intent or calm as the situation dictated; he was a critical part of the Poles being overrun in midfield. Along with the excellent Quintero, it meant that James was on the ball more, which is crucial for Colombia. The longtime coaches--like Low and Pekerman--perhaps get enamored by old hands, men they trust, guys like Muller and C. Sanchez, respectively. Apparently Pekerman hasn’t done an interview in 6 years, and has the nation confused with a variety of lineup changes, but he seems to have arrived (stumbled?) on to an excellent one here.
Finally, that 2nd goal, a great lesson for strikers and a great lesson for star players. Falcao made a diagonal run; maybe he should have been released there, but he didn’t get the ball. One can just see Ronaldo throwing up his hands, forced to play with such idiots. Instead, Falcao immediately recalibrates: ”hey, let’s go the other way now, inside instead of outside.” Quintero spotted the pass and quickly delivered, and Falcao gave us a true striker’s finish, quick and clinical. It never crossed my mind that he wouldn't score once he made that first touch. At the end of the game, he said something along the lines of “we have the greatest players in the world.” They don't, of course, but nothing about his glory. You can tell why every single field player ran down to congratulate him.
Finally, Ospina did come up big against Lewandowski when the #9 brought a lovely long ball down with an exquisite touch; he had beaten the excellent Mina but Ospina smothered the finish. Colombia make enough casual mistakes in their defensive half to give pause, and surely Senegal will be looking to pounce on Thursday, when both have everything to play for. Looking forward to it, because Colombia have definitely got their mojo back.