World Cup preview: Colombia

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews Colombia's chances as they look to build on their best-ever showing in Brazil four years ago.

Fresh off the back of their best-ever World Cup showing, Colombia will be looking to build on their quarter-final finish from four years ago in Russia this summer.

James Rodriguez was one of the stars of that tournament, finishing as the Golden Boot winner as well as claiming the Goal of the Tournament award, and he will once again be part of the Colombian squad this summer.

The Colombian team lines up prior to their international friendly with France in March 2018© Reuters

Indeed, it is something of a golden generation for Colombia, and having already surpassed the achievements of the Carlos Valderrama era, the South Americans will be eager to push the boundaries further still.

Here, Sports Mole assesses their chances at Russia 2018.


GROUP

On paper, Group H looks to be one of the kinder ones at this summer's World Cup, and Colombia would not have been too displeased to see themselves drawn alongside Japan, Poland and Senegal.

World Cup Group H

All four teams will fancy their chances of finishing in the top two, but Poland will go into the tournament as the slight favourites to claim top spot with Colombia not far behind.

The meeting between those two sides in Kazan on June 24 could prove crucial, then, although Colombia must also overcome a Japan side that topped their qualifying group and a Senegal team that went unbeaten en route to this summer's tournament.

COLOMBIA FIXTURES

June 19: Colombia vs. Japan (1pm, Mordovia Arena, Saransk)
June 24: Poland vs. Colombia (7pm, Kazan Arena, Kazan)
June 28: Senegal vs. Colombia (3pm, Cosmos Arena, Samara)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

There was drama all the way in the South American section of World Cup qualifying, and Colombia were right in the midst of a frantic final day.

With only four points separating six teams heading into the last round of fixtures Colombia knew that they could still finish anywhere from second to seventh, with only four teams qualifying automatically and a fifth going into the playoffs.

Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina leads the celebrations as his side qualify for the World Cup following a 1-1 draw with Peru© Reuters

It had been a mixed qualification campaign for Colombia up to that point, with just one win from their opening four games being followed by three successive victories to get them back on track.

However, they then won just one of their next five games before again seemingly steadying the ship with triumphs over Bolivia and Ecuador in March 2017.

The inconsistency continued with draws against Venezuela and Brazil before their place at Russia 2018 was plunged into even greater jeopardy with a 2-1 defeat at home to Paraguay in their penultimate game.

That left them facing an uncertain fate going into the dramatic final day, when they faced fellow qualification hopefuls Peru, but a 1-1 draw in Lima ultimately proved to be enough for both teams to go through as Chile and Paraguay missed out.


RECENT FORM

Colombia will head into their opening group fixture against Japan on the back of a couple of underwhelming goalless draws, failing to break down fellow finalists Australia and Egypt in pre-tournament friendlies.

Prior to that, though, the South Americans picked up a memorable 3-2 win away at France, recovering from a couple of goals down at the Stade de France to inflict a rare home defeat on a much-fancied Les Bleus.

Colombia's Juan Quintero celebrates scoring their third goal from the penalty spot with teammates during an international friendly with France in March 2018© Reuters

The 4-0 thrashing of China in November further highlighted Colombia's ability to find the net when they are on song, but boss Jose Pekerman will need key men Radamel Falcao and Rodriguez to perform better than they did in that most recent stalemate with Egypt.

Going back over the past year, Pekerman's charges have held Brazil and Spain - the former in a qualifying fixture - while also earning that comeback win in Paris, proving that they have the ability to perform against the tournament's best sides.


SQUAD

Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Arsenal), Camilo Vargas (Deportivo Cali), Jose Fernando Cuadrado (Once Caldas).

Defenders: Cristian Zapata (Milan), Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham), Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), Oscar Murillo (Pachuca), Frank Fabra (Boca Juniors), Johan Mojica (Girona), Yerry Mina (Barcelona).

Midfielders: Wílmar Barrios (Boca Juniors), Carlos Sanchez (Espanyol), Jefferson Lerma (Levante), Jose Izquierdo (Brighton), James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich), Abel Aguilar (Deportivo Cali), Mateus Uribe (America), Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus).

Forwards: Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Miguel Borja (Palmeiras), Carlos Bacca (Villarreal), Luis Fernando Muriel (Sevilla).


STAR PLAYER - James Rodriguez

James Rodriguez in action for Colombia on May 26, 2018© Reuters

The Golden Boot winner four years ago in Brazil, Rodriguez will once again be looking to make his mark on the biggest stage as Colombia's star man this summer.

The 26-year-old's performances in the last World Cup earned him a big-money move to Real Madrid, although that did not quite work out as hoped and he is currently enjoying something of a revival on loan at Bayern Munich.

Rodriguez was named man of the match on his Colombia debut against Bolivia in 2011 and has since become an icon back in his home country, going on to score 21 goals in 62 appearances for Los Cafeteros.

Others in the squad are more than capable of sharing the responsibility - namely Falcao, Juan Cuadrado and David Ospina - but James is the main man.


MANAGER - Jose Pekerman

Colombia manager Jose Pekerman on March 27, 2018© Reuters

Pekerman led Colombia in their memorable run to the quarter-finals four years ago, and the Argentine boss remains at the helm of the national team for a second World Cup this summer.

Russia 2018 will be his third taste of the tournament on an individual basis, though, having also been in charge of his home country at the 2006 World Cup, only to resign following their quarter-final exit.

Pekerman had previously coached Argentina's Under-20s team for seven years, enjoying incredible success with three World Cup titles at that level.

A three-time South American Coach of the Year, the 68-year-old was a midfielder during his playing days, which like his coaching career was split between Argentina and Colombia.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Quarter-finals (2014)

Despite missing star player Falcao through injury, Colombia still managed to make a significant impact in Brazil four years ago as they broke new ground to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

Three wins from three in the group stages set up a last-16 showdown with fellow South Americans Uruguay which they won 2-0 before their run was finally ended by hosts Brazil, although Rodriguez still netted in that 2-1 defeat to maintain his record of scoring in every one of his side's games.

Colombia celebrate after beating Uruguay in the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup© Reuters

Somewhat surprisingly, 2014 was Colombia's first appearance at a World Cup since 1998, and the first time they had reached the knockout rounds since 1990, when they were eliminated by Roger Milla and Cameroon in the last 16.

Los Cafeteros are also inextricably linked to arguably the darkest moment in World Cup history when defender Andres Escobar was murdered by a crazed supporter six days after their 1994 campaign came to an end, having scored an own goal against United States during the group stages.

Colombia also failed to qualify from the group stages in 1962 and 1998, only making it into the knockout rounds twice from their five previous tournaments.

Overall Colombia have played 18 World Cup matches, winning seven of those with two draws and nine defeats, while scoring 26 goals and conceding 27.


PREDICTION

We're backing Colombia to finish top of Group H, which would set up a last-16 showdown with the runners-up of Group G - either Belgium, England, Tunisia or Panama.

England are the most likely to finish second in that group, and Colombia will fancy their chances of overcoming Gareth Southgate's side too. However, that could set up a quarter-final tie with Germany, which is where their journey may end.

VERDICT: Quarter-finals

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How far will Colombia go at this summer's World Cup?

Group stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group stages
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Last 16
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Quarter-finals
87.5%
Semi-finals
0.0%
Runners-up
12.5%
Winners
0.0%
James Rodriguez in action for Bayern Munich on May 1, 2018
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Falcao, Rodriguez named in Colombia WC squad
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