Five months after giving Colombia a serious chance of winning this summer’s World Cup, Jonathan Wilson now explains why the loss of star striker Radamel Falcao means their hopes have been dashed, and why they could now be worth opposing to top Group C…
Back in September, I advocated backing Colombia to win the World Cup at 34.0. It was crazy, I suggested, that they were longer than England (then 26.0), given their form and the fact they were likely to be seeded while England still faced a fight even to qualify.
Such is the perversity of these things – and the perception of the difficulty of their group, that England, having qualified, have now gone out to 34 to win the World Cup themselves.
What is more remarkable, though, is that Colombia have only slipped to 36.0 since losing Radamel Falcao to a serious knee injury. The forward hadn’t been in great form for Monaco – in fact, most of the time he looked like he would rather have been almost anywhere else – but it would be hard to overstate his importance to his country.
Falcao featured in 13 of the 16 qualifiers Colombia played. In the three he missed, Colombia lost one, drew one and then beat a shambolic and demoralised Paraguay in the final round of games. In the 13 he played, they won eight, drew two and lost three. So that’s 1.33 points per game without him as opposed to 2.0 points per game with him. Only Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi scored more than Falcao’s nine goals in the Conmebol section. He will be badly missed.
It’s not just his goals, though: Falcao was the touchstone for the team, the Colombian player who had made it and was making big money in Europe, not just a good forward, but one of the best forwards in the world.
He had a galvanising effect, making Colombia believe in themselves, something that has been much needed after they missed the last three World Cups. He didn’t wear the armband, but Falcao was a sort of emotional captain, somebody whose influence was felt throughout the team. If things were going wrong, there was always the sense that he might just do something brilliant and turn the game around.
There’s no doubt that Teo Gutierrez, a turbulent if gifted forward who was kicked out of Racing two years ago after allegedly threatening team-mates with a paintball gun and is now at River Plate, has benefitted playing alongside him. Gutierrez, remarkably given how he acts, is 28, a year older than Falaco, but he always seemed the junior partner, capitalising on the space left by Falcao to score seven goals in qualifying. That partnership was key to Colombia’s qualification, yielding 59% of the goals Colombia scored.
Jose Pekerman does have a couple of options to replace Falcao. Jackson Martinez, at 27, is coming into his prime and has been in decent form for Porto this season. Carlos Bacca, another 27-year-old, played alongside Martinez in that final game against Paraguay and is thriving at Sevilla. Dorlan Pabon was prolific at Atletico Nacional, but his move to Valencia hasn’t worked out and he has been loaned to Sao Paulo. There’s Adrian Ramos of Hertha Berlin, who is more of a wide man, but did play through the middle against Argentina.
Or Pekerman could turn away from his 4-4-3 and play a 4-3-2-1, with James Rodriguez and Macnelly Torres behind a front man.
But however they play, whoever plays, it will not be the same as having Falcao. That doesn’t make Colombia a bad side, but it surely should have caused more than a two-point adjustment? And that means there may be value in backing Japan, Ivory Coast or Greece to make it through, or laying Colombia to top their group at 1.92.
Greece in particular, dour and dogged though they are, seem overpriced at 3.45 To Qualify in what could turn out to be the most open group in the tournament.
Then there’s the knock-on effect on Group D to consider. It may be hard to call between Italy 1.46, Uruguay 1.52and England 1.81 to progress, but whoever finishes second will face a far less intimidating prospect in the last 16 than seemed likely when the draw was made.
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