Group C: Colombia impressive but still need improvement

Colombia showed why they are dark horses following victory over Greece but can they go all the way? Noah Tan pinpoints three areas in which they still need to improve on.

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Along with the Netherland’s 5-1 thrashing of Spain, Colombia’s 3-0 win over the Greeks will rank as one of the most convincing in this tournament so far.

“But it’s only Greece!” you yell. “A win over them...bah! That’s nothing special; they were expected to lose anyway.”

But while I would agree that the Colombians were expected to triumph, I highly doubt anyone could have predicted how convincing the scoreline would be.

This was after all, a Greek team which had rightly earned a reputation as one of the hardest outfits to break down; playing with a style which would make Jose Mourinho swell with pride, they often set themselves up to the philosophy of 'First, we do not lose.'

The fact that they conceded only 4 goals in 10 games, and kept more clean sheets (8) than any other European team during qualification, speaks for itself.

Yet, they were completely blown away by the raw pace and power of the Colombians.

Left wing-back Pablo Armero fired the South Americans into the lead in the 5th minute, following a flowing move down the right in which the excellent Juan Cuadrado was heavily involved.

Teofilo Gutierrez, tasked with trying to fill Radamel Falcao’s grotesquely oversized boots this tournament, rose to the occasion early in the second half with an opportunistic strike, after Greece failed to clear their lines from a corner.

The impressive James Rodriguez then put the rather delicious icing on the cake, with a composed finish from Cuardado’s cross in injury time.

It was a mature performance overall from a young Colombian team. In attack especially, they were simply exhilarating.

But the pessimist in me still saw faults in their performance; flaws, which could prove fatal against a better team.

So can Colombia win the World Cup? Sure. But they’ll first need to address these three issues.

A leaky defence

It sounds silly to criticise Colombia’s defence, especially when they managed to keep a clean sheet. But in truth, they were hugely aided by the ineffective Greek strike force. Giorgos Samaras may be an elegant player on the ball, but he is as sharp in front of goal as his long silky hair. His strike partner, Theofanis Gekas, was no better. In fact, the 34-year-old will probably be a strong contender for the ignominious award of Miss of the tournament”, after heading against the bar from point-blank range.

Yet, the way Colombia were carved open on several occasions by the distinctly average Greeks must surely be a cause for concern for head coach Jose Pekerman. At 38 years of age, centre-back Mario Yepes is one of the oldest players to feature in this World Cup. Naturally of course, he is far from the most mobile of defenders.

The lack of speed though, can be covered up by an organised backline working in tandem. Unfortunately for the veteran central defender, his defensive partners were haphazard in their positioning, and far from convincing in the tackle. If not for the heroics of goalkeeper David Ospina, the outcome of this game could have been very different.

A quick word in defence of Yepes though. The Atalanta man may not be the quickest player around, but he was far from inadequate. In fact, he was by far the best defender for Colombia in this game, as he used his experience to great effect. In all, the former AC Milan player made 3 blocks, 3 interceptions, 3 tackles and 8 clearances for his team. Not a bad return at all.

Possessing a fantastic attack is all well and truly good, but the importance of defence should not be overlooked. Just ask any Liverpool fan why they failed to win the Premier League title this season (you may have to wait awhile for their sobs to subside before getting an answer). A World Champion needs to be all-rounded, and defence is one area where Colombia must get it right, before being able to dream of any success.

What needs to be done: This is simple. More work on the training ground, to get the defence working together as one.

A gaping hole in the middle

Personally, I thought Rodriguez had a fantastic game. He ran his lungs out, got stuck in, and provided much of the creative thrust through the middle. He was ably assisted by the defensive minded Carlos Sanchez (aptly nicknamed “La Roca” – the Rock), who guarded the area in front of his defence like a jealous brahma bull.

But given that Colombia focused their attacks on the flanks, Rodriguez was often drawn out wide in order to support the wingers. Their third centre-midfielder, Abel Aguilar, also repeatedly moved into extremely advanced positions in order to join in the attack.

Yet, as Sanchez was unwilling to push up from the defensive third, it created a lot of space in the centre of the pitch, which Greece exploited time and again when on the counter-attack.

This could prove suicidal when they take on Ivory Coast in their next game. It could quickly turn ugly for the Colombians if they cede the same amount of room in the middle to Yaya Toure. It is not for nothing that many regard winning the midfield battle as the key to victory in any game.

What needs to be done: Both Aguilar and Rodriguez need to be more tactically disciplined. Whenever one advances to the final third, the other must curb his attacking instincts and remain in the middle. This will not only provide a layer of protection when defending on the counter, but also another outlet for the Colombians to pass the ball when they run into a cul-de-sac.

A penchant for overdoing things

The likes of Victor Ibarbo, Cuadrado, Rodriguez and Gutierrez are all technically excellent players with bags of pace in their arsenal. Each of them is more than capable of beating their opponent with pace or skill. And they certainly tore the Greek defence apart with the speed in which they brought the ball forward.

Yet, while it was pleasing on the eye to see a Colombian player complete a successful dribble, their effectiveness in the final third was greatly reduced by each one of them trying to do too much on their own.

It soon struck me that Colombia were playing football the way I played FIFA: with the ‘sprint button’ on at all times. While each player’s pace could easily take them past one defender, they would usually lose the ball once they went up against the second man. Thus, possession was lost cheaply on too regular a basis, which is especially frustrating when they spurn the chance to play a simple pass to an open team-mate. For the record, I have since forgotten how it feels like to win at FIFA.

What needs to be done: Simplify their approach. Beat one man, pass the ball, and move into space. Colombia did show glimpses of their ability to pass the ball well, so it shows they can play a passing game if they want to. This will enable them to keep possession during key moments of the game and better allow them to dictate the tempo.

There is no question that Colombia have now proven to be one of the teams to watch this tournament. I am sure they will cause an upset along the way this year. The question is: how far can they go? Well, if they can just iron out the chinks in their armour, then maybe, we might just be in store for a surprising World Cup winner this year.

Some quick thoughts on Ivory Coast vs Japan

So the Ivoirians earned a crucial 2-1 victory over Japan.

With Colombia expected to finish first in the group, this result could have huge implications come the end of the group stage.

Japan might have considered themselves unlucky to be on the losing end, especially after a dominant first half which saw Keisuke Honda score an absolute beauty of a goal.

But Ivory Coast responded brilliantly after the break, and were more than deserving of their win.

Still, it must be worrying for the African nation that it took a 36-year-old striker to really turn the tide of the game.

Yes, even if that man is Didier Drogba.

With quality players like Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony in the team, Ivory Coast really should have done much better.

They will need to step up their game if they are to match Colombia this Friday.

As for Japan, they must get all three points against Greece in their next game in order to stay in contention to qualify for the last-16.

Anything less than that and I fear their World Cup dream will be over.

But it is still far from straightforward in Group C, and I would not be placing any bets on the outcome just yet.

Noah Tan is a sports radio broadcaster in Singapore who dreams of managing Arsenal one day. He pinky swears that he will spend lots of money on quality players when that day finally comes.