Two South American countries will meet for a place in the World Cup quarterfinals at the famed Maracanã on Saturday, but the similarities end there for Colombia and Uruguay.
It's hard to think of two teams that progressed to the Round of 16 in more contrasting manners. While Colombia thrilled with its high-octane attacking play, the Uruguay team required all its battle-hardened nous and unbreakable determination. And a clash of styles it most certainly will be.
There's an argument that Colombia has been the most impressive at this World Cup through the group stage. Maximum points from three games is particularly praise-worthy for a country that hasn’t been to a World Cup in 16 years, has one of the most inexperienced squads, and lost its star player to injury before the tournament.
The absence of prolific striker Radamel Falcao has been overcome, spectacularly. Having played a front two throughout qualifying, the loss of Falcao persuaded Argentine coach José Pékerman to switch to just a single-striker formation and move James Rodríguez in from the left flank. Handing Falcao’s Monaco teammate the creative reins of the team in the No. 10 role has proved a masterstroke. Rodríguez has scored a goal in each match as well as setting up a host of chances for teammates. Pace down the flanks has also been a key factor in making Colombia’s attacking play so devastating for opponents. Juan Cuadrado has excelled, although Víctor Ibarbo on the left has thus far been more hit and miss.
Indeed, the scary fact for Uruguay is that Colombia could yet get better. Teófilo Gutiérrez has been far from clinical in the line striking role and could find his place under threat from Adrián Ramos or Jackson Martínez, who both impressed with their opportunities against Japan.
Crucial so far has been that Colombia’s problematic defense has held up to inspection. Mario Yepes, the team’s 38-year-old captain, has impressed thus far and there has been good protection in midfield.
Of course, it's a collection of defenders who surely smiled broadly when it was announced by FIFA on Thursday that Luis Suárez would be banned for the match, and, of course, far beyond. Uruguay is certainly a different proposition with one of the world’s great players leading their attack, as they showed when Suárez got both goals in a 2-1 victory over England after the team’s best performance of the World Cup to date.
But the loss of Suárez will only intensify this team’s garra charrúa, a principle of guts and ferocious fighting spirit that has long been associated with Uruguay. Suárez took it too far, but his teammates showed garra charrúa in spades against Italy. With Uruguay needing to win, it was an ugly, tetchy game. Italy looked to be successfully frustrating Uruguay en route to grinding out a goalless draw to progress. Then up popped Diego Godín, a man who has epitomized garra charrúa for both club, Atlético Madrid, and country, to power in a late header.
Uruguay looked out for the count after a dismal opening defeat against Costa Rica, a team that had been allowed to grow old together and now had little left in the tank. Instead they defied the odds once more with back-to-back wins. The old hands will relish doing it again against their raw opponents about whom everyone is raving.
Especially without Suárez, if Uruguay does win, it's unlikely to be pretty. The loss of Suárez can be overcome, but it presents a problem for coach Óscar Wáshington Tabárez. Diego Forlán started the opening game against Costa Rica alongside Edinson Cavani, leading Uruguay to be far too predictable. The pace of Suárez in behind allowed the hard-working Cavani to drop deep into midfield, something the 35-year-old Forlán may now do.
Pitbull-like midfielder Arévalo Rios could make it an uncomfortable day for Rodríguez, but if Uruguay again goes with a narrow midfield, there will be opportunities for Cuadrado and Ibarbo to exploit Uruguay’s questionable full-backs. Colombia will hope to make it a game where ability is the deciding factor, yet to do that they will need to match Uruguay’s intensity and, crucially, keep their feet on the ground after the exhilarating way in which they have progressed to this stage.
Prediction: Colombia 2-1 Uruguay
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
Colombia win: 10/11
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Round of 16 match will kick off from the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro at 4 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ABC.