FORTALEZA // In the closest set of last-16 matches at a World Cup, only Jose Pekerman’s Colombia were comfortable victors, sweeping aside a despondent Uruguay 2-0 to cruise into the quarter-finals.
Now comes the real test for the team and their Argentine manager as he aims to bring down a Brazil side backed by a nation of 200 million riding a wave of emotion in which they squeezed past Chile into the last eight.
Another James Rodriguez-inspired victory over Uruguay means Colombia are one of only two sides in Brazil – the Netherlands are the other – to have won all four of their games without needing extra time.
James has been the star, scoring five of his side’s 11 goals, but allowing only two goals speaks wonders for Pekerman’s ability to strike a balance despite possessing an array of talented young forward players and an ageing defence.
Pekerman, 64, is now also level with double World Cup winner Vittorio Pozzo as the only coach to go nine games unbeaten in open play. However, his bitter exit with Argentina in 2006 on penalties has left him with unfinished business.
Having shone in the group stages and beaten Mexico in the last 16, thanks to Maxi Rodriguez’s wonder strike, Argentina looked well set for their first World Cup semi-final in 16 years thanks to Roberto Ayala’s headed opener against Germany.
With his side leading with 20 minutes to go, Pekerman controversially removed playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and left 19-year-old Lionel Messi on the bench.
The decision backfired when Miroslav Klose equalised, the Germans prevailed on penalties and Pekerman swiftly offered his resignation.
Eight years on, Pekerman has the chance to banish those ghosts and repay his own country as well as his adopted Colombia by knocking out Argentina’s eternal rivals from their own World Cup.
Brazil and Colombia have arrived at the same point by very different means.
The tension that surrounds every game the hosts play is palpable, not only within the stadium, but around the entire country.
By contrast, Colombia, having lost star striker Radamel Falcao to a serious knee injury, have played in a more carefree manner, which has allowed their flair players, particularly James, to shine.
“Sometimes, a team with a lot of potential, if they don’t find the result and they need to win, they can’t play so brilliantly,” Pekerman said of Brazil after beating Uruguay.
“So the competition becomes interesting, because a team with less individual stars can disturb the balance of the other team.”
Colombia are expected to do more than merely disturb Brazil tonight in the heat of Fortaleza.
In stark contrast to his opposite number on the Brazilian bench, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s reliance on feeding the emotions of his players, Pekerman’s strength lies in his tactical prowess.
He has already shown his flexibility by switching from a one-striker system that worked so well in the group stages to playing two up front when he knew his side would have to take the game to a dogged Uruguay.
A switch back to a five-man midfield is expected as Pekerman looks to frustrate Brazil and feed their anxiety. But do not expect Colombia’s adopted mastermind to get overly conservative should his side go in front against the hosts.
That is a lesson from which he should have learned.
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