FORTALEZA, Brazil: In the closest set of last 16 matches ever 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, though, comes the real test for ‘Los Cafeteros’ and their Argentine manager as he aims to bring down a 200 million people strong expectant nation in Brazil riding a wave of emotion that saw them squeeze past Chile into the last eight.
Another James Rodriguez-inspired victory over Uruguay means Colombia are one of only two sides in Brazil to have won all four of their games without the need for extra time.
James has been the star, scoring five of his side’s 11 goals, but that they have also only conceded twice speaks wonders of Pekerman’s ability to strike a balance despite possessing an array of talented young forward players and an ageing defence.
Pekerman is now also level with double World Cup winner Vittorio Pozzo as the only coach to go nine games unbeaten in open play.
However, the 64-year-old’s bitter exit with Argentina in 2006 on penalties to hosts Germany has left him with unfinished business at the World Cup.
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.
With his side leading with 20 minutes to go, Pekerman controversially removed playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and left a 19-year-old Lionel Messi on the bench to try and see the game out.
The decision backfired as 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 pressure and tension which 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 care-free 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 come Friday 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 in this competition 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 on their anxiety. AFP