The pressure facing Colombia before Sunday’s crucial Group H clash with Poland was unlike any this generation has ever had to face, seemingly endless fog with a single route through.
But with Juan Fernando Quintero and James Rodriguez playing the roles of navigators, slick Colombia found their way through to end Poland’s World Cup campaign and keep their hopes of progress alive ahead of their final group outing.
Their pre-match situation represented uncharted territory, for four years ago they lit up the World Cup at times and went close to knocking out hosts Brazil.
Back then they sailed through the group phase and then dispatched Uruguay thanks to the brilliance of James. The pressure was rarely on in Brazil and, although they were eliminated in the last eight, they returned home heroes – Jose Pekerman lauding the welcome they received at the airport.
But from the fourth minute of this tournament they found themselves on the back foot – Carlos Sanchez’s red card ultimately playing a crucial role in the 2-1 defeat to Japan.
Given a defeat in Kazan would have sent them packing early and probably cost Pekerman his job, how such a talented squad would cope with an entirely unfamiliar type of pressure looked fascinating.
So much importance had been placed on the potential return to the starting XI of James, given he could only feature from the bench against Japan after a calf injury, yet early on Colombia looked nervous even with their talisman – Poland attempting to capitalise on that by getting in their faces and roughing them up.
10 – Across the last two World Cup tournaments (2014 and 2018), no player has scored more goals (6) or provided more assists (4) than James Rodriguez. Gifted. #POLCOL #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/hFdNqjRkHr
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 24, 2018
But with the exquisite Quintero dropping deep to pull the strings, Colombia soon found their feet – the River Plate talent buzzing around all over the midfield, constantly looking to slice Poland open.
James didn’t look completely sharp, his movement appearing sluggish and unimaginative at times, as he departed his starting berth on the left and went up to act as support for Radamel Falcao.
But the Bayern Munich playmaker delivered the moment of sheer class expected of him, providing a sumptuous chipped ball in for Yerry Mina to head home following yet another clever Quintero pass.
Even if his body wasn’t sharp, his brain certainly was.
In Quintero, Colombia had a player capable of picking up some of the creative slack – parting the Poland defence again early in the second period before Juan Cuadrado cut back to Falcao, who shot over.
That notion of an unfamiliar pressure returned as the hour-mark approached, Poland stepping things up for the first time since the early exchanges and almost drawing level through Robert Lewandowski.
Considering how many forward-thinking players Colombia had on the pitch, their decision to sit back and absorb pressure in the second half looked a brave one.
But Colombia were just too crisp, as Quintero cut Poland’s backline open with surgical precision like he had threatened to for the previous hour, setting up Falcao for a lovely finish.
Then James took over again, providing a brilliant pass in from the left to find Cuadrado who wrapped things up.
The performance and result provided an emphatic response to the criticism they have received in recent days, while also answering the looming question of whether they can stand up to intense pressure.
Colombia essentially needed to win in Kazan, and thanks to the creative talents of Quintero and James, expectation is land now close to being conquered.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 24, 2018
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