Without Radamel Falcao to lead their attack, Colombia are looking to Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado at the World Cup, explains Alasdair Mackenzie.
It has been a stellar year for Juan Cuadrado. The winger has built on an impressive first season with Fiorentina by producing such ruthlessly efficient performances throughout the 2013-14 Serie A campaign that he is many pundits’ choice as Player of the Season. He has excelled under the tutelage of Vincenzo Montella, who has deployed the Colombian higher up the pitch to devastating effect - 15 goals and 11 assists across all competitions is not too shabby for a player who was until very recently considered a right-back.
His improvement from the last campaign should not have come as a surprise though, as this is a man who has proven throughout his short career that he has the ability to keep his form on an upward trajectory. Cuadrado’s key role as a youngster in Medellin’s 2008 Colombian title bid was spotted by the typically excellent Udinese scouting system. However, it was a loan spell with Lecce that proved to be the launch pad for the 25-year-old’s Italian success as he became an integral part of the spirited Salentini side that was narrowly relegated in 2011-12. His subsequent move to Florence has seen the Colombian international move further up the pitch, transforming from a marauding full-back into a fleet-footed winger.
Fans of the Colombian national side will be particularly grateful to Montella for helping to develop their star in this role. That is due to the fact that on June 14, when Colombia kick off their first World Cup campaign in 16 years, Cuadrado will be placed more firmly at the forefront of his nation’s hopes than anyone could have previously anticipated.
Argentinean Coach Jose Pekerman led the side comfortably through a South American qualifying campaign in which they were unlucky to finish second behind Argentina. His team rarely changed shape or personnel but its impact was devastating - a 4-2-2-2 featuring the irrepressible Radamel Falcao and unpredictable Teofilo Gutierrez flanked by Monaco’s €45m man James Rodriguez and Cuadrado saw Colombia record impressive results such as the 4-0 destruction of Uruguay and 3-1 away win in Chile.
However, the news of Falcao’s tournament-ending injury has somewhat dampened the hype surrounding this Colombia side. Without their top scorer and biggest star, the potential problems surrounding a questionable defence featuring Atalanta’s 38 year-old Mario Yepes, Milan’s Cristian Zapata and Napoli duo Pablo Armero and Juan Camilo Zuniga have come into public debate.
In the absence of Falcao, Cuadrado and James Rodriguez must shoulder more goalscoring responsibility, as whilst they are both proven scorers at club level this has not yet been replicated at international level - the pair have nine goals in 50 caps between them. Although Pekerman has excellent centre-forward alternatives such as Carlos Bacca and Jackson Martinez at his disposal, the entire system was previously built around ‘El Tigre’ and it is likely that it will take time for his side to adjust to playing without him.
Colombia have waited 16 years to have another crack at World Cup glory and their current generation of players is exceptional. Despite Falcao’s injury, it would be foolish to bet against this side becoming the most successful Colombia team ever by reaching the quarter-finals. Los Cafeteros have only previously qualified for four tournaments and only once left the group stage, in 1990 when they were defeated by a Roger Milla-inspired Cameroon in the Last 16.
This is a surprisingly poor record for a nation that has produced so many great players. However, Cuadrado and his fellow countrymen have an excellent chance this summer, having been drawn in a challenging but certainly favourable group featuring the Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece. The Fiorentina winger’s rise has been relentless and he is likely to embrace the challenge of sharing the attacking responsibility Falcao has left behind.
Fans of La Viola may be hoping the winger doesn’t impress too much, given that there have already been rumblings of interest from the likes of Barcelona. But if the 25-year-old continues his meteoric rise at the same rate, it seems only a matter of time before he will be a cornerstone in the line up of one of Europe’s biggest clubs.