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.

Managerial change a slippery slope for West Brom

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Tony Pulis brought much needed stability to West Bromwich Albion before his tenure soured in a hurry.

When Pulis took over at the Hawthorns, West Brom had seen both Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine do little winning in abbreviated managerial stints. Mel won three of 17 matches in charge, while Irvine could only nab five in 22.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked ]

So there is little debating, even for those who West Brom fans who revel in the club’s former free-flowing ways, that Pulis had a productive time in charge from January 2015 right on through most of last season.

But Pulis was seemingly limited to setting a points total and then kicking his heels up once Premier League safety was reached.

While that sounds a bit laughable, the facts are that the Baggies finished 10th last season despite an impressive start that saw the club comfortably eighth for much of the season. However, West Brom won five points from its final 12 matches to finish 16 points behind a European place (including five shutout losses at home).

The Baggies finished 14th the previous season, Pulis’ first full year in charge, but collapsed again after hitting the rarefied air of 11th. That final stretch? Five losses and four draws including shutout losses at home to Norwich City, Watford, and West Ham.

In doing so, Pulis belied his own budgetary critiques by proving the Baggies had the talent to compete for something relatively special.

Pulis was good at getting his side to play with the fury of a relegation contender from Day One, but it was so clear the side was sated once safety was secure. It wouldn’t be callous to opine that the manager would’ve viewed the Europa League as a nuisance to his “never been relegated” reputation (an idea buttressed by West Brom’s performances in Cup competitions, where Pulis never advanced to a quarterfinal while losing to Reading, Norwich City, Derby County, Northampton Town, and, this season, Man City).

What West Brom does next will say a lot. If it’s as simple as a rehashing of the “never been relegated” deck with Sam Allardyce, well, that’s something. But the Baggies are in the tricky predicament of having to replace a relatively stable hand who was their first good hire in three tries, while also running with the knowledge that their players clearly are capable of so much better than 17th.

The names on the bettor’s lists show what’s expected of West Brom: gritty style from an island manager. Derek McInnes is the favorite, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill just ahead of Sam Allardyce. Alan Pardew is next, followed by Ronald Koeman (For what it’s worth, bookies are still milking money from gamblers by including Jurgen Klinsmann’s name at 20:1 or so).

West Brom is in its eighth-straight Premier League campaign. The firing will jostle an already rocking ship, but the Baggies have steady leadership in Jonny Evans, Ben Foster, Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson. They have the wherewithal to achieve safety again, and can even look good in the process should a manager find the right way to use Salomon Rondon, Matty Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Nacer Chadli, and others.

Who’s the right man for the job?

West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis

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Tony Pulis‘ reign over the Hawthorns is over, as West Bromwich Albion has fired the 59-year-old after just under three years in charge of the Premier League outfit.

Assistant coach Gary Megson takes over on an interim basis.

[ MLS: Steve Bruce to Miami? ]

The Baggies have not won a game since August, and were belted 4-0 at home by Chelsea on Saturday to leave the club one point above the drop zone.

Overall, Pulis oversaw wins in just 36 of his 121 matches, losing 49, in what will go down as one of the least successful stints in his well-traveled career. Only three PL clubs have scored less than the Baggies’ nine goals.

Here’s the club statement:

“These decisions are never taken lightly but always in the interests of the Club.

“We are in a results business and over the back end of last season and this season to date, ours have been very disappointing.

“We would like to place on record our appreciation of Tony’s contribution and hard work during a period of transition for the Club which included a change of ownership. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Pulis will almost certainly be back on the touch line soon, as he hasn’t spent more than a few months out of work since 2002.

Pressure builds on Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz

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Borussia Dortmund has fallen to fifth in the Bundesliga table thanks to a trio of consecutive losses in league play, and suddenly there is loads of pressure on manager Peter Bosz.

The Dutchman came to Westfalenstadion after upper management pushed Thomas Tuchel out over the summer, and while he won seven of his first eight league matches in charge by a total goal differential of 21-2, things have come crashing down. The black & yellow have lost three in a row Bundesliga matches and four of their last five across all competitions, with their only win in that span coming over third-tier Magdenburg.

With fans feeling helpless over the departure of the wildly successful Tuchel that came as a result of a falling out between the German and his superiors, Bosz would always be on a short leash. He inherited a flawed squad, yet one that had achieved much under his predecessor, and immediate failures would naturally be lumped on the new man.

The most recent defeat, a 2-1 falter at Stuttgart, was a microcosm of Dortmund’s recent failures. The team conceded a comically poor goal five minutes into the match, worked hard to equalize just before the halftime break, and conceded again just after returning to the pitch. They controlled much of the match, but largely failed to capitalize.

The head man summed it up pretty well. “The defeat really hurts,” Bosz proclaimed after the final whistle. “We came here to win, so we’re very disappointed. When you see the goals we conceded, it borders on the ridiculous. It hurts because we actually put in a relatively good performance in the first half. The team performed well after conceding the early goal, only the final ball was lacking. The second half wasn’t as good. We need to keep going, we won’t give up.”

So what do the Dortmund executives do? Does Bosz get the benefit of the doubt based on performances? Or does he get blamed for the sudden dropoff in results? There is plenty of pressure given the team sits not only nine points back of Borussia Dortmund in league play, but is also third in a brutal Champions League group with almost no hope of recovery, and even threatens to miss out on a drop to Europa League play if they slip behind Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia, whom they find themselves level on points with.

Even if the club sticks with the Dutchman for now, his room for error has almost completely evaporated and it’s only mid-November. The next two matches will likely tell the tale, and it’s an uphill battle. Tottenham comes to Westfalenstadion on the backs of a disappointing defeat to North London foes Arsenal, followed by the home end of the Rivierderby against a Schalke side that sits second in the Bundesliga table, three points above Bosz and Dortmund.

Antonio Conte calls Tony Pulis a “really good manager”

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West Brom, after four straight defeats, sits 17th in the Premier League table, most recently suffering a 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Chelsea.

Yet Blues boss Antonio Conte has offered his counterpart an olive branch, supporting his fellow Premier League manager at a time of panic.

With reports that Pulis could be fired this coming week – some say as early as Monday – the Baggies boss is under heaps of pressure, but Conte doesn’t believe he should be. “I must be honest, I think Tony Pulis is a really good manager,” Conte said, hoping those in charge don’t make decisions based on Sunday’s result.

“He has great experience and it’s always very difficult to play against his team. This game became easy because we started very strong, with great concentration and desire to win. We showed from the start our will to win this game. But I repeat: Last season we struggled a lot against them.”

West Brom has lost four in a row in league play, and they haven’t picked up a win since August, and as The Guardian points out, they have the lowest average possession in the Premier League and have the second-lowest shots on target thus far. They registered just two shots on target against Chelsea, and held 39% possession, which is actually slightly above their average for the season.