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Quintero adds finesse to Pekerman’s rock-solid Colombia

By Michael Place MOSCOW Russia (Xinhua) -- World Cup quarterfinalists in Brazil four years ago, Colombia have done what was expected of them by progressing to the knockout stage in Russia.

In fact, a cursory glance at the final Group H standings might suggest that it has been a stress-free journey so far; Colombia topped the group with six points, two more than second-placed Japan.

But the South American team’s passage to the round of 16 has been far from plain sailing. The Cafeteros made a disastrous start to their campaign when midfielder Carlos Sanchez was sent off in the third minute of their opener against Japan. The Blue Samurai took advantage of their numerical advantage to win 2-1 in Saransk.

The result left Colombia needing two wins from their last two group matches and that is exactly what they have done; first trouncing Poland 3-0 and then grinding out a 1-0 win over Senegal on Thursday.

But while it was a mightily impressive display against the Poles, the same cannot be said of the labored victory over the Lions of Teranga.

Which begs the question: can Jose Pekerman’s team progress to the last eight and beyond?

The answer could depend on the availability of their playmaker James Rodriguez, whose fitness is the cause of growing concern in Colombia’s camp.

The 26-year-old suffered a reoccurrence of a leg muscle problem against Senegal and was taken off before halftime. His absence was clearly evident as Colombia struggled to foray forward with fluency despite the best efforts of Juan Quintero and Juan Cuadrado, the team’s only other creative midfielders.

As a consequence, Radamel Falcao struggled for supply and was often drawn deep in a bid to win the ball.

With only five days until their next match against England, Colombia will be sweating on the fitness of their influential No. 10, who won the Golden Boot four years ago with six goals.

But, even if he does play, it is doubtful the Bayern Munich star will be anywhere near fully fit.

While Colombia’s squad has a plethora of central defensive midfielders, it is short on attacking playmakers, meaning there will be a greater onus on Quintero to deliver.

Which brings us to the good news for Pekerman and his men. Quintero, who has struggled with form and fitness in recent seasons, is arguably enjoying his best run of form in Colombia’s national team.

The 25-year-old, currently on loan at River Plate from Porto, scored from a free-kick against Japan and provided a sumptuous assist for Radamel Falcao against Poland. Most of the team’s best attacking moves against Senegal came via his prodigious left foot.

Another positive for Pekerman has been the performances of center-backs Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez.

Mina has endured a frustrating 2018 after his January move to Barcelona from Brazil’s Palmeiras. The 23-year-old made only a handful of starts in his first five months with the Blaugrana and was an unused substitute for Colombia against Japan.

Recalled to the starting lineup against Poland, Mina headed in the team’s first goal and he again found the net by nodding in Colombia’s winner on Thursday from a corner.

All the while, Mina has not forgotten his defensive duties as Colombia have kept two successive clean sheets.

Sanchez has arguably been even more impressive. The Tottenham player is showing himself to be a calming influence on his teammates here with his clever positioning, composure in possession and well-timed tackles.

In goal, David Ospina is proving that a lack of regular playing time at club level is no barrier to performing well on football’s highest stage. The Arsenal shot-stopper has not been tested too often in the past two matches but has done the job when Colombia have needed him, such as late in Thursday’s match when he denied M’Baye Niang with a fine reflex save.

One suspects that Ospina, Sanchez and Mina will need to raise the bar even further to quell the threat posed by Harry Kane and company on Tuesday.

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EARLIER REPORTS:

Senegal didn’t deserve to qualify, says coach Aliou Cisse

SAMARA Russia (Xinhua) -- Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said on Thursday night that although he was satisfied with his men’s performance, Senegal didn’t deserve to advance to the World Cup last 16.

Following a 2-1 victory against Poland and a 2-2 draw with Japan, only one point is needed for the Teranga Lions to advance to the knockout stage before Thursday’s match against Colombia.

However, Senegal was defeated by the South American country and eliminated because they received more yellow cards than Japan.

“Senegal have not qualified because we did not deserve to qualify,” Cisse told reporters after the game at the Samara Arena.

“I feel we could have scored in the first half and I think we controlled the match quite well. I’m just disappointed for my team, for this generation and for these players who fight every single day for our country,” he added.

Thursday’s match made the Teranga Lions become the first team that was knocked out by the fair play rule at the World Cup.

Regarding the way of elimination, Cisse said they had no choice but accept it.

“Fair Play points are one of the rules and these rules have been established in the tournament regulations. We have to respect that. We would have preferred to be eliminated in another way but that’s the way it works and we knew that those were the regulations,” he said.

“I will continue to encourage them and to be with them because I think we can expect many more good things from them in the future,” he concluded.

After Senegal’s elimination, there will be no African team in the round of 16.

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Colombia coach makes rare self-criticism after
team’s qualification for World Cup last 16

SAMARA Russia (Xinhua) -- Despite a victory against Senegal in World Cup Group H match, Colombia coach Jose Nestor Pekerman made self-criticism on Thursday, saying his team played a tough game and couldn’t get the necessary control in central midfield.

With a lone goal from defender Yerry Mina at the Samara Arena, the South American country secured a spot in the last 16. Although Senegal launched fierce attacks during the game and created several chances, the Teranga Lions couldn’t convert any of them.

“The match was tough because we couldn’t get the necessary control in central midfield to enable us to feed the right kind of balls to Falcao,” Pekerman told reporters on the post-match press conference.

The Argentine thought “there was a lot of tension in the air today” and “also some very worrying moments, especially in the first half”.

“Senegal played very well and it was tough for us to maintain our identity,” he added.

However, the 68-year-old coach praised his team for successful defense, as Senegal made 8 attempts at the goal throughout the match without a goal.

“We managed to defend successfully though, and they didn’t create many goal-scoring opportunities,” he said.

Colombia superstar James Rodriguez was forced off by injury in the first half. The Bayern Munich star made no attempts at the goal and only 10 passes for 30 minutes.

With regard to the midfielder’s condition, Pekerman showed great concerns.

“I’m very worried,” he said, “I don’t have confirmation or information. We have to wait. We hope it’s good news after the review (about James Rodriguez’s injury).”

Rodriguez absented from training before World Cup due to “muscle fatigue”, but the midfielder played in the matches against Japan and Poland.

After advancing to the knockout stage, Colombia will face England or Belgium on July 3.

           

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