Saturday June 14 2014

Keep an eye on these two

In the absence of Falcao, Carlos Bacca will be one of Columbia’s main

In the absence of Falcao, Carlos Bacca will be one of Columbia’s main goal hunters in the tournament. PHOTO BY AFP 


I It took a whopping fifteen editions for a country to win the World Cup outside of its own continent, when a little man with bowlegs and a lisp carried Brazil to glory in North America in 1994.

Eight years later there was a repeat of the feat by the most dominant nation of the greatest show on earth, Brazil subjugating the football world a record fifth time on Asian soil.

Spain have since managed to emulate the Brazilians by landing their maiden victory on the tournament’s first trip to Africa; and so it is no longer unthinkable (as it was half a century ago) that another European country, or even one from Africa, can go to South America and get this most coveted of prizes out, from no less a bastion than Brazil itself.

The World Cup has always come down to a showdown between Europe and South America, with Brazil, Argentina and to a lesser extent Uruguay left to stand in the way of the might of Germany, Italy, France, Spain and England (ahem); and the winner of this 20th edition is most certain to be drawn from that pool, whatever protestations Holland and Portugal - perennial bridesmaids and escorts without a single crown to their name - might harbour. Yet at the end of it all, the ultimate honour can only be bestowed on one country at a time.

So as you sweat and fret over the noble, it is worth keeping an eye on two of the servile - one from either continent - now equipped and licenced to hobnob with and perhaps even usurp aristocracy.

Not so many of the coaches of the time-honoured giants will have the luxury and pain of mulling over options in the same way as Marc Wilmots, in a squad overflowing with such talent that 18 of the 23-man squad are good enough to start on any given day.

The back-five is self-picking, but the midfield is a delightful quandary; several of the exciting youngsters are destined to spend restless hours on the bench very much in the knowledge that they would leave their mark if given the chance, but sacrificed at the altar of team balance and to guard against the tactical transgression of duplication of roles.

Thankfully for Wilmots and his boys, in plan A there is only one slot for a natural striker who is Romelu Lukaku (his only back-up Divock Origi, the teenage son of Kenyan legend Mike Okoth, is all too willing to wait).
Five slots, central and wide, are left to midfielders but will still not be enough to accommodate the diversely endowed ensemble. With Eden Hazard going wide left and Kevin Mirallas wide right, and with Kevin De Bruyne assuming the central playmaking mantle in the hole behind Lukaku, two places are left and have to be occupied by deeper-lying types.

Had it not been for his experience and variety he brings to the side with his size, especially at set pieces on either side, Marouane Fellaini would be the one I would leave out, if that Marc left the choice to this Mark.
Still though, that would only mean that Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembele pair up around the centre circle, confining the more forward-going flair players Steven Defour and Dries Mertens to the sidelines, along with them the wide men Nacer Chadli and the colorfully gifted kid Adnan Januzaj.

If there is one team at the World Cup that would spark off the debate on rewriting the rules to increase on the number of substitutions, it is Belgium. But even within the prevailing restrictions, here is an outfit worth paying attention to away from the long-standing partisanship or the shameless recent glory hunting.

The belief from a great many is that Colombia are a one-team fated to suffer in the absence of their crocked superstar Radamel Falcao. But, as many stereotypes are won’t to be, this one is as unfortunate and as sadly inaccurate as they come.

While none of the three surviving strikers is of the prolific pedigree of Falcao, each can hold his own and indeed Jackson Martinez (Porto), Carlos Bacca (Sevilla) and Adrian Ramos (Hertha Berlin) have had such great recent seasons that they are on the shopping lists of Europe’s elite clubs and could see their stock rise even higher over the next few weeks.

But that is not even the department that the unacquainted need to watch the most closely when these men in yellow take to the pitches of Brazil. The midfield, with its crisp passing and cohesive unit, as well as with the ability of the individuals there-in, is bound to surprise quite a few.
Only freshly out of his teens, the wonderkid Juan Fernando Quintero is guaranteed to catch the eye and draw a few gasps, and is certain to get more playing time than his Belgian equivalent Januzaj.

Add to him the nimble footed Monaco conductor James Rodriguez, and the Italian Serie A-based pair of Fredy Guarin and Juan Guillermo Cuardado, who both combine artistry and industry beautifully, and you have a killer-combo that should cause quite a stir.

So, while the coaches of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Germany and several others pile the pressure on their teams to perfectly execute tactically, to sacrifice self for the collective good, to prioritise the end over the means, hopefully Colombia’s Jose Pekerman and Belgium’s Wilmots will unshackle their charges and let them loose.

If they do, these two countries are sure to creep from under the radar and memorably light up this World Cup.
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