Following the most successful World Cup campaign in the country’s history will not be easy for Colombia, who reached the quarter-finals in Brazil while playing some of the most thrilling football at the tournament. Just 10 of the 23 players in that squad are on the plane to Russia, but there is plenty of reason to think the new faces will make them stronger.
Radamel Falcao, who missed the cut in 2014 after rupturing his cruciate ligament, has since enjoyed a remarkable career resurgence at Monaco. The rapid maturation of Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina has also drastically improved coach Jose Pekerman’s options in the centre of defence, even if consistent solidity at that end proved elusive in qualification.
Shouldering the majority of expectation will once again be James Rodriguez, top scorer and breakout star of the last World Cup. The playmaker’s career has not gone entirely to plan since 2014, but there have been enough flashes on loan at Bayern Munich this season to suggest that he could once again shine on the stage that first made him.
Juan Cuadrado, David Ospina and Carlos Bacca are also four years older and wiser. The belief of this Colombia side should be strengthened by the experience of Brazil, and a tricky but reasonable group devoid of tournament contenders could allow them the space to find their groove.
Who do they play?
Colombia vs Japan – 13:00, Tuesday 19 June
Colombia vs Poland – 19:00, Sunday 24 June
Colombia vs Senegal – 15:00, Thursday 28 June
James Rodriguez: Colombia’s leading scorer in qualifying with six goals, James remains the team’s technical leader and creative hub. Seven goals and 11 assists in 23 Bundesliga appearances at Bayern this season also indicate that he heads into this tournament in good form and a confident frame of mind. How well he links up with Falcao and Cuadrado in particular will be vital.
Radamel Falcao: No one in the Colombia squad will be more motivated to shine in Russia than Falcao, who was cruelly deprived of the chance to make his mark on a World Cup in 2014. He scored just two goals in qualifying but was impressive again for Monaco this season, scoring 18 goals in 26 Ligue 1 appearances and three goals in five Champions League games.
Davinson Sanchez: Toby Alderweireld can testify to Sanchez’s quality, having been forced to watch from the bench as the 21-year-old partnered Jan Vertonghen in the heart of the Tottenham defence for much of this season. A first World Cup provides a new challenge but he has the physicality, athleticism and positional instincts to match up well against any striker in the tournament.
One to watch
Yerry Mina: There are already suggestions that Mina could be sold or loaned out by Barcelona this summer, only six months after he arrived at Camp Nou from Palmeiras for £10.5m. Adaptation has been complicated by the presence of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti as regular starters, but Mina has plenty of talent and every reason to display it for interested clubs in Russia.
How did they get here?
In many ways Colombia did exactly what was expected of them in South American qualifying, winning the majority of matches in which they were considered clear favourites but failing to cause any surprises. They went unbeaten home and away against Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia but lost twice to Argentina and failed to beat Brazil, Uruguay or Chile.
A 1-1 draw against Peru in Lima on the final match day secured Colombia the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot by a single point ahead of their opponents and Chile. Goals were the main problem; they scored just 21 times in 18 matches, though James led the way with six.
How will they do?
Poland boast the highest FIFA ranking of any team in Group H and the best player in Robert Lewandowski, but Colombia might be the most talented team. Opening against Japan should give Pekerman’s men a chance to build some momentum, though anything less than a winning start could leave a very perilous path to the knockout stage, which is the minimum expectation.
Winning the group would set up a likely round-of-16 clash with England, whose knockout record in recent international tournaments is less than intimidating. Colombia would almost certainly be quarter-final underdogs regardless of their path, but they are very capable of springing a surprise and improving on 2014 if luck and belief are on their side.
Odds of winning the tournament: 40/1
Goalkeepers: David Ospina, Camilo Vargas, Jose Fernando Cuadrado.
Defenders: Cristian Zapata, Davinson Sanchez, Santiago Arias, Oscar Murillo, Frank Fabra, Johan Mojica, Yerry Mina.
Midfielders: Wílmar Barrios, Carlos Sanchez, Jefferson Lerma, Jose Izquierdo, James Rodriguez, Abel Aguilar, Mateus Uribe, Juan Fernando Quintero, Juan Cuadrado.
Forwards: Radamel Falcao, Miguel Borja, Carlos Bacca, Luis Fernando Muriel.