Colombia seek to regain form as Jose Pekerman names remixed squad
With 18 rounds played across a period of over two years, South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign is a dynamic process. There is plenty of time for teams to fall apart or suddenly come together. A rebuilding process can often take place during the competition, which may be what is happening now with Colombia.
When they reached the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in 2014, the future looked bright for the Colombian national team. They had made history without star centre-forward Radamel Falcao Garcia, who missed the tournament through injury and has yet to recapture anything like his best form. Most of the team still seemed to have their best years ahead of them. It's true that veteran captain and centre-back Mario Yepes needed to be replaced, but that hasn't proved to be a massive problem: Jeison Murillo of Inter Milan has stepped up in style.
The problems, though, have come almost everywhere else on the field. Murillo's goal gave them a much celebrated and long awaited win over Brazil in last year's Copa America, but it was the only time in the tournament that they managed to score. The warning lights that were flashing in Chile have proved prescient. Colombia's form through the first four rounds of World Cup qualification has been disappointing; they were flattered by a 2-0 win at home to Peru, went down 3-0 away to Uruguay and did better in a 1-1 draw in Chile, but they were below par once more in a 1-0 home reverse against Argentina.
The team's lack of cohesion has been especially disappointing. Usually, sides coached by the Argentine Jose Pekerman stand out for the quality of their midfield interplay. Since the World Cup, though, Colombia have looked thoroughly disjointed. It may well be significant that their best performance so far in the campaign came in that visit to Chile. With their attacking style, the Chileans can leave themselves open to the opposing counterattack and this was a game in which Colombia were uncharacteristically direct, playing up quickly to their front three.
Pekerman has shown clear signs of discontent with his team through the squad he announced for the coming trip to Bolivia on Thursday and the home game against Ecuador the following Tuesday. He has brought in 12 players who were not called up for the first few rounds: more new faces than any other South American side.
Some are returning. Abel Aguilar has been hit by injuries of late. In his own quiet way, the central midfielder has performed interesting service in his international career, knitting the side together with his pass and move game. It is a function that has been badly missed, and one that more youthful newcomers Sebastian Perez and Gabriel Cuellar will be expected to carry out in the future.
Up front, there are also some fascinating additions to the squad, such as teenage Marlos Moreno of Atletico Nacional, the star of the early rounds of the Copa Libertadores. The left-footed Luis Quinones has also been in fine form for his Mexican side Pumas. Shown the door last year by Santa Fe of Bogota after a run of disciplinary problems, it is hoped that he has since settled down.
A few new centre-backs have also been included as Pekerman has been forced into making some changes. Cristian Zapata, his senior centre-back, misses the trip to Bolivia through suspension and Colombia have a lack of experienced cover in this position.
The limited but quick Oscar Murillo is one option, as is the classy John Stefan Medina. There may even be a temptation to play them together. Their styles complement each other and they already have an understanding (the pair played together at Atletico Nacional and are now both at Pachuca in Mexico), which means that the altitude of La Paz should be less of an impediment for them than for someone like Murillo who is returning from Europe.
Whatever the starting line up for the games against Bolivia and Ecuador, Pekerman will be looking for both points and good performances. After their wobble over the past few months, he will want to see that his rebuilt team are on the right lines to compete for a place in Russia.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.