Manager makes a statement as veteran wears Copa America armband on his return to the big time
WHEN Jose Pekerman made the decision to name Radamel Falcao as Colombia’s captain for the Copa America, he was surely making a point even if there was a need to find a replacement for Mario Yepes, their captain at the World Cup, who at 39 has finally yielded to age. Pekerman is indefatigably polite, a manager who will deal with the most robust press-conference interrogation with a slight roll of the eyes – patience, you imagine, is a skill quickly honed if you work as a taxi-driver in Buenos Aires as he did before becoming a coach – but this was a way of ending the eternal questions he faced about Falcao.
Does he still believe in him? Yes, he seemed to be saying, so much so he’s given him the armband. Falcao will start against Venezuela as Colombia get their tournament under way this evening.
Yet for all that, Falcao is in a strange position, one that could hardly have been imagined 18 months ago, when he had scored nine goals in qualifying and the general opinion was that if the back-up was good enough he could inspire Colombia to great things at the World Cup. As it turned out, he damaged knee ligaments in the January and didn’t regain fitness in time to make it to Brazil that June.
Colombia thrived without him. James Rodriguez emerged as one of the brightest young stars in the world. Teo Gutierrez and Jackson Martinez played well enough at centre-forward that Falcao wasn’t missed. It’s impossible, of course, to say whether Colombia prospered despite his absence or because of it: perhaps if he had been there they would have downed Brazil in the quarter-final rather than losing a tetchy game 2-1, but it seemed equally possible that there was a sense of liberation without their biggest star, that other players began to take responsibility upon themselves whereas previously they would always have looked to Falcao.
The season that followed has been miserable for Falcao. He never looked settled at Manchester United, whom he had joined on loan from Monaco. The old pace and verve don’t seem to be there any more. He is 29, but he looked like a much older player – which is perhaps understandable given he began his professional career when he was just 13. Even leaving aside all the allegations about his age that led to his family publishing his birth certificate in 2013, 16 years of football will take their toll. Falcao scored only four goals in 26 games last season, and so the constant questioning of Pekerman is understandable. Given how well the others did without him, given the form of Carlos Bacca for Sevilla – something continued with his two goals in the Europa League final – does Falcao still merit his place in the national side?
“We must never stop trusting him,” Pekerman said last week with an air of understandable weariness. (It’s not just European journalists, it should be said, raising the question – Colombian journalists have haunted the press rooms of this Copa America hunting out anybody English who may have a view on what has happened to Falcao at United).
“His career tells us that. He has always overcome difficulties to have success. The foundation, capacity and style are intact. We do not know if it will appear continuously after the difficult year he has had, but he has always had the character to overcome.”
Given Pekerman’s own career was cut short by a knee injury at the age of 28, when he was a cerebral midfielder for Independiente Medellin, perhaps he is inclined to sympathy, but his faith in Falcao has been vindicated by recent performances. United may have decided not to make permanent Falcao’s loan deal from Monaco, leaving Chelsea and Liverpool to squabble over his signature, but there have been glimmers of the old form of late. Falcao has scored five in his last five for his country, his goal in the friendly against Costa Rica last Saturday taking him past Arnoldo Iguaran to become Colombia’s leading scorer of all time with 25 goals in 57 internationals.
His team-mates, who are probably as sick of the questions as Pekerman, have been unanimously supportive. In fact, there seems general bewilderment that Falcao should be doubted as much. “He’s a leader inside and outside the stadium,” the Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina said. “Besides being a great person, he is a great leader and has been positive despite what happened in Manchester. We know we have the best forward.”
Yet the statistics suggest that Falcao hasn’t been quite the same since he left Atletico Madrid in 2013. In two seasons there, he scored 52 goals in 67 starts. In his one full season at Monaco it was nine goals in 16 starts. Other metrics show a similar decline: shots per game went down from 3.6 at Atletico to 2.9 at Monaco to 1.5 at United; aerials won per game dropped from 1.9 to 1.1 to 0.7; successful dribbles went from 0.9 per game in his second season at Atletico to 0.8 at Monaco to 0.5 at United. The scepticism is not unjustified.
Falcao isn’t the only Colombian to have struggled since moving to England. Juan Cuadrado has started just four games since joining Chelsea from Fiorentina in January – although those who dream of a Colombian double-act at Stamford Bridge will have noted it was Cuadrado’s cross that set up Falcao’s goal against Costa Rica. Jose Mourinho insisted last week that Cuadrado would be staying and insisted his lack of pitch time was an inevitable part of the process of settling in, even as reports circulated that AC Milan want to sign him to play alongside Martinez who is the verge of completing a ¤35 million move from Porto, while the former Newcastle striker Faustino Asprilla has hailed him as Colombia’s “best player” but, still, there’s no point pretending he’s in the form now that he was in the autumn.
Not that there’s any thought of Cuadrado not being selected. Pekerman tends to favour a 4-4-2 with James Rodriguez drifting in from the left; Cuadrado’s pace and directness offer a pleasing balance on the right. With Falcao seemingly a certainty, it looks like Martinez will be the other striker. That means no place either for the in-form Bacca – 20 goals in la Liga last season – or for the River Plate forward Gutierrez who was a regular at the World Cup.
“For me, as a striker, I liked to play with strikers, so I think that Martinez would be the ideal partner for Falcao,” said Asprilla, who is no doubt who deserves the credit for Colombia’s recent upsurge. “We should be eternally grateful to Pekerman for giving us the best World Cup in our history,” he said. “Now he has to ratify what was done at the World Cup.”
It’s a term Pekerman has also used in the build-up to this tournament, almost as though what happened at the World Cup doesn’t really count unless Colombia follow it up with a good performance in Chile.
“There’s no obligation for us to win,” said Pekerman, “but after everything we did in the World Cup we’re challengers for obvious reasons.” The issue now is whether Falcao can find the explosive form that helps Colombia achieve that, or whether his struggles continue and he ends up dragging down a team that did perfectly well without him.