SALVADOR, Brazil: Boasting the only 100 per cent record and yet to concede a goal, Colombia have seduced at the Copa America so far under the wily stewardship of Portuguese Carlos Queiroz.
In the country famed for the world’s best coffee, belief is growing that the football team can conquer South America this year.
The ‘Cafeteros’ (coffee-growers) made an impressive start to the Copa America, defeating Lionel Messi and Argentina 2-0 in their opening match.
A hard-fought 1-0 win over Qatar sent Colombia through to the knock-out stages — the first side to do so — with a game to spare.
That win also guaranteed them top spot in Group B and even though Queiroz changed 10 players for their final pool match against Paraguay, they won that too, 1-0.
“Our biggest victory against Paraguay was taking to the field knowing that we have 22 players ready to work hard,” said Queiroz, coaching his fifth national side across four continents.
“I don’t have replacements in the team, I have a beautiful but very difficult headache!” he said about the selection dilemma he will have for the next games.
In the forward positions alone he has an embarrassment of riches, with players who each offer something a little different.
Radamel Falcao is a proven goalscorer, Duvan Zapata offers a towering muscular target and comes into the tournament in red-hot form following a goal-packed season with Italy’s Atalanta, Juan Cuadrado brings the finesse, Roger Martinez is busy and bullocking on the flank while the currently injured Luis Muriel has buckets of pace and flair.
With James Rodriguez showing the kind of form that convinced Real Madrid to spend 70 million euros ($79.6 million) to take him to the Santiago Bernabeu following the 2014 World Cup, Colombia have been the stand out side of the group stages.
More to come
It’s that strength in depth that has allowed Queiroz — only signed in February after leading Iran to the semifinals of the AFC Asian Cup — to blend his side so quickly into a winning outfit.
Including friendlies in March and May, Colombia have won six out of seven matches under Queiroz.
“In a tournament with six matches in four weeks, everyone can win a couple of matches with a couple of players, but if you want to end as champions you need to know that everyone must be ready to play and everyone needs to know that you often start a tournament with certain players and finish with others,” said the Portuguese, a former Real coach and assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Since replacing the popular Argentine Jose Pekerman, Queiroz has instilled a hard running, high press style on his athletic players, but the 66-year-old says his team is still a work in progress.
“We’re a long way from the football we want to see,” he said.
That should send shock waves through the rest of the teams given how well Colombia have played so far. Since the days of Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla, Colombia have long given the impression of perennial underachievers.
They have won the Copa America only once — on home soil in 2001 — the same number as minnows Bolivia and half as many as Peru, Chile and Paraguay.
In 2001 they won a perfect six out of six without conceding a goal — a good omen given their start in Brazil.
On Friday, they take on champions Chile in the quarterfinal in Sao Paulo. “Now we have a very important quarterfinal match, which will be a battle,” said Cuadrado. For Queiroz, “the true Copa America” starts now.
Chile have been a mixed bag so far, thumping Japan 4-0 before struggling past Ecuador 2-1 and losing 1-0 to Uruguay.
They no longer have the spark that took them to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.
And they certainly won’t relish facing a refined Colombian outfit that is developing a taste for victory. — AFP