Colombia’s hopes of getting to the Copa America finals ran into a red brick wall named Chile. After advancing on penalties against Peru in the quarterfinals while scoring no goals, this time it was the team’s defense that lacked resolve.
Chile dominated the first 15 minutes of the contest and was able to repeatedly turn Colombia’s back four into chaos. Key mistakes by Santiago Arias and Juan Cuadrado allowed two quick goals and put La Selección into a hole from which they couldn’t recover.
In many ways, this was a culmination of the fear for Colombia going into the tournament. While the team has proven players up front, stopping the opposition was the biggest concern. Though the defense looked up to the task in the opener against the United States, the team no longer has the steady leadership of Mario Yepes and Juan Camilo Zúñiga, the duo that made up on the rear foundation during Colombia’s World Cup run. The void reared its head in a big way on the biggest stage.
Against Chile, three of the team’s four defenders — Santiago Arias, Frank Fabra, and Jeison Murillo — were 25 or younger, and none are accustomed to squaring off against Europe-trained goal scorers like Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas. Sanchez was particularly unstoppable, most notably when he embarrassed Arias to win a routine long ball then and then fired a shot towards the goal. While keeper David Ospina got a hand on it, the ball rebounded off the post to Jose Fuenzalida who was all alone to tap a goal into the empty net.
This poor challenge against Sanchez was a colossal blunder by Arias, and it put his team down 0-2. The first goal, in which Juan Cuadrado misplayed a cross by lofting a header right to Chile’s Charles Aranguiz for a tap in, also came on a mistake. Although that misfortune was a bit more related to bad luck then purely bad play, the opportunity was created by overly zealous Colombian pressure and a team-wide inability to track back properly on defense.
After the initial onslaught, Colombia was able to take control. They pushed the ball forward again and again against a cautious Chilean defense. They created at least three good chances in the next half hour, and a few deft saves by Claudio Bravo were the only thing keeping them off the board. But the team’s inability to get a goal to go in the first half seemed like a bad omen. A team as good as Chile can be expected to reorganize during the break and retake the field with a strategy to protect their lead.
Their plans also got some help from Mother Nature. As soon as play stopped, the rains began. Torrential downpours flooded the field and kept the teams and fans indoors for more than two hours.
The water eventually stopped falling and the groundskeepers did all they could to mop up the soggy field. But the pitch the teams played on for the final 45 minutes looked more like a pool than grass.
The deficit and the dreadful conditions would have been difficult enough to overcome, but the final straw came when Colombian midfielder Carlos Sanchez was sent off after receiving a second yellow card at the 57-minute mark. Perhaps the long delay may have caused the ref to forget Sanchez was already playing with one card. Typically refs are a bit more lenient in such a situation, not wanting to decide the game with an overly harsh call. And Sanchez’s tackle was hardly even a foul — let alone a card-worth play.
Nevertheless, his day was over and Colombia was down to 10 men, who had to play on a slip-and-slide field against an opponent in much better form. La Selección continued to push and showed great heart in a continued fight amid terrible conditions. It just wasn’t to be, however, and the Colombia team was knocked out.
Despite the loss — and scoring zero goals in their final two games — the tournament was a positive step forward for the Colombian national team. This edition of Copa America was much better than the poor outing last summer, and the team was able to reassert itself on the global stage.
José Pékerman’s team, led by crack James Rodríguez, remains young and wildly inconsistent from game to game. But there is clearly a lot of talent there, and good signs emerged for the future throughout the five-game competition. Roger Martinez and Marlos Moreno look like fixtures of the attack for years to come, and the defenders — if unpolished and not ready for prime time — are at least now a bit more experience in big games.
There is still much work to do, but a dreary end, both in outcome and weather, shouldn’t put a complete damper on a successful tournament. They don’t yet look ready to recapture the glory of the 2014 World Cup team. Still, that goal looks a lot more achievable than it did 12 months ago.