SAN JOSE, Calif. – Colombia’s status as favorite to top one of the toughest groups in Copa América Centenario is a result of a balanced national team, who moved to third place in the June FIFA rankings.
But in order to prove they deserve the favorite tag, the squad managed by José Pékerman understands they still have plenty to work on during their last training session before Friday’s Copa América opener against the US national team (9:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision).
Colombia’s assertiveness with their deep pressuring game, precision in their possession, attack by the wings and accuracy on goal might not mean anything if they don’t improve their biggest weakness: defending in the air.
“Surely, it’s a small problem we have right now and one we’ve worked on, focused mainly on set pieces,” said center back Cristian Zapata before Wednesday’s practice session at the San Jose Earthquakes' training complex. “The team has lost its presence [inside the area]. We’ve got to be more alert and concentrated.”
But, it’s not really a “small problem.” In fact, it could be a real issue for the Cafeteros.
Colombia defeated Haiti 3-1 in Miami last weekend in their last game before facing the US, but the lone Haitian goal came off a corner kick in the 35th minute headed in by midfielder Wilde-Donald Guerrier.
“We played deep, but we lacked some balance,” said Pékerman after the game. “[Haiti’s goal] hurt, because we weren’t concentrated enough and we need to keep working.”
They certainly do, because Colombia have been struggling with opponents who dominate in the air recently. In three of their last five World Cup qualifying matches, Colombia have found themselves allowing goals following set pieces or crosses that should have being dealt with more effectively.
A devastating 3-0 defeat last October to Uruguay in Montevideo started with a 34th minute corner kick that Diego Godin converted in the first goal of the game, with a powerful header in the center of the 18. One month later, Colombia visited Chile in a 1-1 draw and right before the first half break, Arturo Vidal headed a free kick inside the Cafeteros area.
Even though they defeated Bolivia 3-2 last March in La Paz, the home side also took advantage of Colombia’s susceptibility. With the game 2-0 up for Colombia in the 50th minute, a free kick from the flank came straight to Colombia’s defender Jeison Murillo, who unable to control the ball ended up conceding a penalty kick by stopping the ball's trajectory with his arm. Juan Carlos Arce converted for Bolivia a minute later.
Murillo and Zapata will likely be the starting center backs for Colombia against the US, and they understand their need to improve in the air against a team that bodes well in that area with players like Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, Geoff Cameron and John Anthony Brooks.
“The United States’ attack is strong, quick and we need to be focused and concentrated always,” recognized Zapata. “They have important players and it’s a team that has being working together for awhile now.
“We don’t want any surprises.”
The game on Friday will be the 18th overall meeting between both national teams, and their third in the Copa América. In both previous instances Colombia won; in 1995 in Uruguay for the third place match, and in 2007 in Venezuela during the group stage.