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2014 World Cup Team Preview: Colombia

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Getting to know… Colombia
Colombia are one of the sides tapped to be a dark horse in this year’s World Cup. In fact, they’ve been tipped by so many to make a splash that the term “dark horse” likely no longer applies. Perhaps it’s better to view Colombia as a white knight, riding in to rescue a tournament which might, without them, simply be way too boring.

But the Colombia team hasn’t always been so swift, so intimidating, so…fun. In fact, it’s been more than fifteen years since we’ve seen them at a World Cup. Their last appearance was in France, when they failed to make it past the group stages. In their four appearances in the tournament, their most successful was in Italia ’90, when they made it to the Round of 16.

Los cafeteros have never won more than one game at the World Cup. This could be the year that all changes. They go to Brazil armed with plenty of attacking talent, with (hopefully fit) Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez just a few of the names that are available to terrorize defenses. But their defense is strong as well, making Colombia a truly formidable opponent.

Record in qualifying
CONMEBOL qualifiers require all South American teams (except with the exception of hosts Brazil this time around) to play each other twice, home and away. So Colombia can’t be accused of having an easy group, or a simpler route to qualifying than the rest of the continent’s sides.

Yet they still managed to reach second in CONMEBOL qualifying, two points behind heavyweights Brazil, and five points ahead of Uruguay, who were so successful in South Africa. Colombia scored 27 goals in 16 matches while conceding just 13, the lowest total on the continent.

A look at Group C 
Will winning the group be a breeze for Colombia? It certainly doesn’t look challenging. First up is Greece, who are known for their defensive style of play. But when up against quality opponents in UEFA qualifying, Greece caved and conceded. It should be no problem for Colombia to get goals.

Then comes Ivory Coast, a rather aging squad. They’ll need to worry about Yaya Touré and the seemingly never-ending threat of Didier Drogba, but again, Colombia should come out on top. Japan may worry the cafeteros defense, but their own back line isn’t the most solid, so the closing match should at least provide plenty of attacking thrills.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 12 noon ET: Colombia vs. Greece (Estadio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Thursday, June 19 at 12 noon ET: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (Nacional, Brasilia)

Tuesday, June 24 at 4 p.m. ET: Japan vs. Colombia (Arena Pantanal, Cuiabá)

Star player
For better or for worse, Colombia’s star is Radamel Falcao. He hasn’t played since his injury and subsequent operation in January, but he’s still set to be included when José Pékerman names his final squad. The forward scored nine goals in thirteen qualifying matches, and his partnership with Monaco teammate James Rodríguez should not be understated. The midfielder is a key creator for Colombia, but it’s Falcao that applies the finish. If Falcao suffers another injury setback, Jackson Martínez will step in, but will he and James click the same?

Manager
José Pékerman lead Argentina to the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup, then spent time managing in Mexico. He accepted the position of Colombia head coach in January 2012, becoming the third manager of los cafeteros during the 2014 qualifying stages. He came in after the side lost to Argentina, and that’s when the Colombian revolution began.

It’s Pékerman that has exploited Colombia’s wealth of attacking talent. His 4-2-2-2 system not only takes advantage of the likes of Falcao, but also makes use of Colombia’s talented wide players, like Napoli’s Camilo Zúñiga and Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado.

Secret weapon
Coffee!

No, not really. I have no idea if the Colombia national team sips a lot of coffee. But it’s appropriate that their nickname is los cafeterosor the coffee-growers. Although Colombia has left much of its violent past behind, the country’s name still conjures up armed guerrillas and drug cartels. About the only previous positive association most people could make with Colombia was its delicious coffee.

Now, Colombia could very well be associated with free-flowing, attack-minded football as well.

Prediction

I have Colombia emerging top of Group C and going on to face Italy in the Round of 16. After Italy’s performance against Ireland, I’m tipping Colombia to move on to the quarter-finals, where they’ll be knocked out by Brazil.

VIDEO: Jeison Murillo’s incredible bicycle from a corner kick

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 17:  (R-L) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goal with Geoffrey Kondogbia during the TIM Cup match between FC Internazionale and Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 17, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Look away now, Andy Carroll. Take a bow, Jeison Murillo.

[ VIDEOS: All in a week’s work — Messi free kick no. 1 | Messi free kick no. 2 ]

Just three days after Carroll scored the bicycle-kick goal of the year (so we thought), here comes Murillo, Inter Milan’s 24-year-old Colombian striker, to steal his thunder (below video). The fact he did it directly from a corner kick, with the ball traveling nearly 50 yards before flinging his body into the air and striking the ball so cleanly, (somehow) trumps Carroll’s accomplishment from Saturday.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

Sensational goals come in twos now, apparently, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud scored stunning scorpion-kick goals (WATCH HERE and HERE) just days apart earlier in the season.

FA Cup roundup: Burnley, Crystal Palace advance to 4th round

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace (L) during the Emirates FA Cup third round replay between Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers at Selhurst Park on January 17, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in FA Cup third-round replays…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Burnley 2-0 Sunderland

Sam Vokes and Andre Gray grabbed goals for Burnley, who opted for a largely first-choice lineup in Tuesday’s replay. Sunderland, meanwhile, went with a mix-and-match bunch and slumped to six games without a win (all competitions), meaning they can focus solely on Premier League survival from here on out. Burnley will host Championship side Bristol City in the fourth round next Saturday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Crystal Palace 2-1 Bolton Wanderers

Sam Allardyce picked up his first win as Palace boss, courtesy of a Christian Benteke brace scored nine minutes apart in the second half, as the Eagles came from behind to beat League One side Bolton at Selhurst Park. James Henry put the visitors three minutes into the second half, but Benteke hit back in the 68th and 77th minutes to improve Allardyce’s record to one win, two draws and three losses (all competitions). Palace will host Manchester City in the fourth round next Saturday.

Tuesday’s FA Cup scoreboard

AFC Wimbledon 1-3 Sutton United
Barnsley 1-2 (AET) Blackpool
Fleetwood Town 0-1 Bristol City
Lincoln City 1-0 Ipswich Town

AFCON: Ayew propels Ghana to victory; Egypt struggle vs. Mali

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 21:  Andre Ayew of Ghana celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Ghana at Castelao on June 21, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ghana 1-0 Uganda

PORT-GENTIL, Gabon (AP) Andre Ayew scored a penalty as Ghana beat Uganda 1-0 on Tuesday in a lackluster opening to the four-time champions’ bid for a first African Cup of Nations title in 35 years.

Ghana took control of Group D after seven-time champion Egypt struggled in a 0-0 draw with Mali in the other group match.

Ghana has three points, Egypt and Mali one each and Uganda zero.

Ayew, a West Ham winger, netted in the 32nd minute after Asamoah Gyan was held back by Isaac Isinde in the penalty area in Port-Gentil.

Avram Grant, a former Chelsea manager, is looking to lead Ghana to a second successive final but go better than 2015 when his team lost to Ivory Coast.

Uganda has also finished runner-up in the continental championship but the trip to the final in 1978 was the last time it qualified until making the Gabon event.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Mali 0-0 Egypt

Later, 44-year-old Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary became the oldest player in tournament history when he came on for injured Ahmed El Shenawy midway through the first half.

El Hadary, who celebrated his birthday two days ago, is participating in his seventh African Cup, having picked up winners’ medals in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Egypt’s standout forward Mohamed Salah struggled and was replaced midway through the second half.

Mali, looking to improve on its third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, produced many more chances.

Egypt failed to qualify for the last three editions of the tournament.

Wednesday’s AFCON schedule

Gabon vs. Burkina-Faso — 11 a.m. ET
Cameroon vs. Guinea-Bissau — 2 p.m. ET

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.