Strength in depth helps to press Colombia’s claims for Copa America
Jose Pekerman’s Colombia were eye-catching at the World Cup last summer and, although ultimately knocked out by Brazil, they made a telling blow to the hosts’ hopes of winning the tournament when star striker Neymar was stretchered off.
There is a sense of irony in that Juan Camilo Zuniga, whose knee in the back of the Barcelona boy-wonder ended his hopes of the global Golden Boot, may miss the upcoming Copa America injured, but has been named on their preliminary roster. His potential absence and that of retired captain Mario Yepes aside, the Coffee Growers have broadly keep faith with the same squad selected by Pekerman last summer.
Apart from Argentina, the Samba Boys and Copa hosts Chile, Colombia come next in the outright betting at 11/2, and it’s easy to see why when you look at the quality of their attacking options.
Shorn of joint-record scorer Radamel Falcao’s services during the World Cup due to a serious knee injury, he is back in international contention despite an indifferent loan spell with Manchester United. He remains a name to be taken seriously even though his killer indistinct and sharpness are yet to return.
Able deputy Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate), joins Sevilla scoring sensation Carlos Bacca and Porto poacher Jackson Martinez as locks for inclusion if all are fit. Adrian Ramos (Borussia Dortmund) will miss the Copa after injuring his ankle in training, so a reserve spot may go to one of three men on the fringes.
Luis Muriel, who swapped Udinese for Sampdoria in Serie A this winter, and Cagliari-owned Victor Ibarbo (on loan at Roma) are competing to make the final cut, with this tournament coming too early for uncapped domestically-based teenager Rafael Santos Borre.
Add in the direct wingplay of Chelsea winter window capture Juan Cuadrado, plus guileful Real Madrid summer signing and World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez, and Pekerman has a prodigious frontline which is arguably equal to any other competing nation.
Porto playmaker Juan Quintero has been a victim of Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui’s clever loans from La Liga, reducing his game time, but Colombia’s engine room alternatives remain the same and offer something different.
Fredy Guarin (Inter Milan) is the box-to-box type, while Aston Villa’s Carlos Sanchez is more of an anchorman alongside the tenacious Alexander Meija (now at Monterrey) and Toulouse all-round Abel Aguilar.
Other midfield spots should go to a couple of youngsters from Meija’s clubmate Edwin Cardona, and another Mexican based player Andres Renteria (Santos Laguna). Carlos Carbonero (Cesena) and the uncapped Wilmar Barrios, who is yet to leave native soil, miss out on selection.
In defence, Pekerman is trying to plug Yepes’ position with a generation gap. Highly-rated Granada centre back Jeison Murillo, 22, is leaving the Pozzo family empire for Inter Milan, so Watford fans will not see this player currently contracted to their sister club come into their defence upon their Premier League return.
All the Coffee Growers’ hopes are not entrusted to one man to marshal the back four, however, as Besiktas’ Pedro Franco has also been brought into the fold and blooded. Stefan Medina, a third Monterrey man, has missed out in favour of Eder Alvarez Balanta (River Plate), who has been on the fringes for a while.
Cristian Zapata remains the experienced option to call upon in central defence at 28, but has yet to win his place back at AC Milan after injury. At full back, former West Ham United loanee Pablo Armero (back in South America at Brazilian club Flamengo following a difficult spell at the San Siro) and Santiago Arias, an Eredivisie title winner with PSV Eindhoven this term, have been retained.
While Udinese-owned Armero is rebuilding his career, Arias faces a race to be fit, so this creates opportunity for youngsters if he cannot prove it. Domestically based late bloomer Daniel Bocanegra missed the cut, so left-sided on-loan pair Darwin Andrade (Standard Liege) and Johan Mojica (Real Valladolid) are thus in with chances of making the step up.
Pekerman has also kept faith with Arsenal goalie David Ospina, signed as a number two this summer but has since displaced Wojciech Szczesny, and Camilo Vargas as understudy for between the sticks. It could come down to how much protection the inexperienced defence get from midfield and more commanding Ospina outings, who is not the tallest.
Preliminary Colombia squad for 2015 Copa America:
Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Arsenal), Camilo Vargas (Atletico Nacional), Cristian Bonilla (La Equidad, on loan from Atletico Nacional)
Defenders: Pablo Armero (Flamengo, on loan from Udinese), Juan Camilo Zuniga (Napoli), Cristian Zapata (AC Milan), Carlos Valdes (Nacional, on loan from Philadelphia Union), Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), Eder Alvarez Balanta (River Plate), Jeison Murillo (Granada, but joining Inter Milan this summer), Pedro Franco (Besiktas), Johan Mojica (Real Valladolid, on loan from Rayo Vallecano), Darwin Andrade (Standard Liege, on loan from Ujpest), Francisco Meza (Santa Fe)
Midfielders: Abel Aguilar (Toulouse), Fredy Guarin (Inter), Carlos Sanchez (Aston Villa), Alexander Meija and Edwin Cardona (both Monterrey), Edwin Valencia (Santos), Juan Quintero (Porto), Andres Renteria (Santos Laguna)
Forwards: Radamel Falcao (Manchester United, on loan from Monaco), Juan Cuadrado (Chelsea), Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate), Jackson Martinez (Porto), James Rodriguez (Real Madrid), Carlos Bacca (Sevilla), Victor Ibarbo (Roma, on loan from Cagliari), Luis Muriel (Sampdoria)