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World Cup 2018 team preview: Colombia is a few pieces away from contender status

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group H is Colombia.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group H: 43.5%
Odds to advance: 75%
Odds to win World Cup: 2.9%
Elo rank: 8
Yahoo Sports power rank: 8

Our writers say: Los Cafeteros were one of the joys of the 2014 tournament, and they’re back again with a very familiar look. James Rodriguez is the creative fulcrum, but just one of many key pieces of a team with quarterfinal potential. — Henry Bushnell

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

James Rodriquez and Falcao will be the protagonists for Colombia at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 6th
Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
2014 finish: Lost in the quarterfinals to Brazil
Qualifying: Finished fourth in South America
Schedule: Japan (Tuesday, June 19, 11 a.m., Fox), Poland (Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m., Fox), Senegal (Thursday, June 28, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group H preview]

Squad

Manager: Jose Pekerman
Captain: Radamel Falcao (F)
Top players: James Rodriguez (M), Davinson Sanchez (D), Juan Cuadrado (M), Falcao
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: So many teams – including two in Group H – enter World Cups without an identity. Colombia is just the opposite. Despite a decent amount of roster turnover, especially in defense, these Cafeteros will look a lot like the ones you saw in Brazil four summers ago and the U.S. two summers ago. They’ll grind out games and play through James, which is far from the worst strategy in the world. And speaking of that defense, which is anchored by Sanchez and Yerry Mina: It’s far more athletic than that of four years ago. Colombia, therefore, has more versatility, and a wider margin of era.

Why they’ll lose games: The identity is largely a defensive one. A team with James and Falcao should be scoring far more than 21 goals in 18 qualifiers. And the problem wasn’t – isn’t – underperformance from those two. It’s the players behind them. Pekerman hasn’t found his central midfield heirs to Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar. Those two never did much on the ball anyway. Now they’re not the ball-winners they once were. But they still might start, and if they do, they’re Colombia’s weak links.

How they’ll play: Because Sanchez and Aguilar don’t offer much in the way of distribution, James has the freedom to take his playmaking prowess wherever on the field he deems necessary. He’ll drift wide. He’ll drop deep. But when he does turn himself into something of a deep-lying playmaker, he often finds options ahead of him lacking. Pekerman’s 4-2-3-1 could slip into a 4-2-2-2 or even a 4-3-1-2, but either way, the two main forms of attack will be James and a high press.

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): David Ospina; Santiago Arias, Yerry Mina, Davinson Sanchez, Johan Mohica; Abel Aguilar, Carlos Sanchez; Juan Cuadrado, James Rodriguez, Mateus Uribe; Radamel Falcao.

Wilmar Barrios is a younger, fresher option in midfield. Uribe, if he doesn’t start wide, is the more technical option. Jefferson Lerma is the more physical option. But we don’t trust Pekerman to put his faith in any of them ahead of his tried and trusted duo of Aguilar and Sanchez. Aguilar has recovered from a recent injury, and still seems like the best bet to start.

Elsewhere, Edwin Cardona was the favorite to start on the left of midfield, but didn’t even make the 23, which paves the way for Uribe – or a more attacking option like Juan Quintero, Jose Izquierdo or Luis Muriel. If Pekerman goes to a 4-2-2-2, Carlos Bacca and Muriel are the potential Falcao partners.

And finally, on a sour note, starting left back Frank Fabra tore his ACL less than a week before the start of the tournament. Mohica is presumably next in line there.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: On the insane final day of South American qualifying, in the waning minutes of Colombia’s game against Peru, both teams were in position to qualify – or at least reach an intercontinental playoff. So Falcao made his way around to Peruvian players, talking to them with his hand over his mouth. His message? Uh, let’s just say neither team was very adventurous over those final few minutes:


Why to root for them: Remember this face?

David Luiz and Dani Alves console a heartbroken James Rodriguez after Brazil’s 2014 World Cup quarterfinal victory over Colombia. (Getty)

How could you want to see that face again?

Why else to root for them: SYNCHRONIZED GOAL CELEBRATION DANCES.

Why to root against them: The “what makes them unique” section isn’t necessarily a reason to root against them … but it can be an excuse if you’re looking for one.

If you’re going to watch one game … There’s rationale for all three. You’re most likely to get offensive-minded Colombia in the opener. You’re likely to get the most quality in the Poland match. And you’re likely to get the most entertainment in the finale – if both Colombia and Senegal have something to play for.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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