There was one moment in the first half during the Group H match between Colombia and Poland in Kazan that would not appear on any highlight reel. This was before the South Americans took the lead late in the half. This was when Poland still looked like a team that wanted to win the game, even if they weren’t doing enough to justify that for those watching.
Colombia were in their own half, deep on the left flank when Juan Quintero and James Rodriguez were boxed into a corner. They weren’t being pressed too high, but there wasn’t too much space available to work with either. Quintero, then, found a few yard with a lovely pass to Rodriguez and made a forward run. Rodriguez, however, then promptly hit it back to goalkeeper David Ospina. This would normally be seen as a defensive move.
But, then, with the cameras on Ospina, Rodriguez ran into space in the middle of the pitch. Just a few seconds later, he was found by Ospina in acres of space and Colombia poured forward in numbers. In less than 15 seconds, a tight corner became a straight lane where Los Cafeteros could put their foot on the gas.
The match ended 3-0 in Colombia’s favour and this particular moment did not affect that result in anyway whatsoever.
But, on the night, it summarized what the South Americans were all about - flair. Against a Poland side, who often looked like they were ready to take a flight back home right outside the stadium after the match ended, Colombia turned on the style and bounced back from their opening defeat in emphatic fashion.
Backs against the wall
When Japan and Senegal – the pace-setters in Group H – played out a 2-2 draw in what was one of the matches of this World Cup so far, the equation facing Poland and Colombia – the pre-tournament favourites in Group H – was simple. Lose, and head back home. Your World Cup is over, thanks for coming. This was a proper backs-to-the-wall moment for both sides and the match started as if that equation was weighing heavily on both of them.
Both sides made a scrappy start even if Poland looked brighter than Colombia. There were plenty of misplaced passes and a fair few ‘injury’ stoppages in the opening 10 minutes. It was cagey and one began to wonder if the game would be decided by just one moment of brilliance or an individual error.
As it turned out, Colombia produced several moments of brilliance.
A pattern began to emerge after the first quarter of the game with Colombia dictating the tempo and Poland resorting to counter-attacking when possible. Quintero was the man who impressed the most in the first 30 minutes, showing a penchant for playing a pass within a fraction of second of receiving it. He misplaced a fair few but every time the ball went to him, the tempo of the game picked up.
It was turning into a physical battle too, with neither team necessarily shying away from 50-50 challenges. Rodriguez, in fact, received a painful knock on his face but not before he played a through ball that set Radamel Falcao free on a 2-on-2 situation alongside with Juan Cuadrado.
The younger Falcao would have taken a shot instead from a good position inside the box, but here he played a back-heel to Cuadrado that killed the move. A few minutes later Cuadrado produced one of the moments of the night as he shimmied his way past a couple of Polish defenders, using stepovers and feigns, ran to the byline and cut the ball back into a dangerous area before Wojciech Szczesney saved well.
It was those four – Qunitero, Rodriguez, Cuadrado and Falcao – who proved to be the difference-makers on the night, eventually.
At this point it’s necessary to mention that Robert Lewandowski and Co have not covered themselves in glory over the two games they have played in Russia. The highest-ranked team in the group at No 8, the Poles are the first European side in this tournament to book their tickets back home.
On Sunday, against Colombia, despite starting off well, the performance left a lot to be desired and was signified by Lewandowski recording two touches in the penalty box in the first 49 minutes of the game. He was left isolated up front, and when he dropped deep to receive the ball, was crowded out. Sunil Chhetri, in his analysis of the first half for the broadcaster, did not mince his words to criticise the Polish performance: “There is no fire in this Polish side, the other three sides came to win but Poland don’t look like they want to,” he said.
While they improved in the second half, presumably because a fire was lit under their backsides during the changeover, it still wasn’t enough. Lewandowski got involved more, going close on three occasions but there was very little from elsewhere. A good forward, struggling for form, was made to look ordinary by the lack of service he received.
Three classy goals
In contrast, every goal scored by Colombia had a touch of class, a generous sprinkling of South American flair to it.
Yerry Mina’s opening goal was from a neatly worked short corner routine, and was preceded by a perfectly-weighted chipped pass off Rodriguez’s left boot. The second goal, coming after a period of Poland pressure, and it was a moment to rejoice for Falcao.
Having missed the 2014 World Cup due to injury, Falcao might have been forgiven for thinking his chance came and went, but he has persisted, evolved and is still hungry to to deliver at the big stage, as he showed with a delightful outside-of-the-boot finish after receiving an equally delightful through ball from Qunitero.
But the icing on the cake came from Rodriguez. With three defenders surrounding him on the left flank, he ran from his own half, hugging the touchline, aware that Cuadrado was open on the far side. Just before he reached the half-line, he glanced up, and played a pass all along the ground that met Cuadrado’s run through the middle with unerring precision. If we see a better assist than that in the tournament, we’d be fortunate.
In the end, the South American flair proved to be too much to handle for Poland. And Colombia, having played a majority of their first game with 10-men, showed that, at full strength, they are a force to be reckoned with at Russia 2018.