By Mike Collett
A sensational display from James Rodriguez fired Colombia into the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time on Saturday with the attacking midfielder scoring twice in a 2-0 victory over Uruguay including a contender for goal of the tournament.
Rodriguez became the World Cup’s top scorer with five goals and, based on comparative last-16 displays, a buoyant Colombia will fancy their chances against their next opponents Brazil who squeezed past Chile on penalties earlier in the day.
Rodriguez, who looks years younger but turns 23 on July 12, the day before the World Cup final, epitomised everything that was good about their confident performance against Uruguay, who struggled at the Maracana without their banned talismanic striker Luis Suarez.
And while Suarez name might have been on everyone’s lips at the start of the afternoon following his banishment from the tournament for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, Rodriguez was the talking point afterwards.
“Maradona, Messi, Suarez, James Rodriguez, they do things because they have certain gifts that makes them special. It is not up to me to say but I believe from what I have see that he is the best player in the World Cup,” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said.
His own manager Jose Pekerman was just as complementary.
“At his age, he has no problem taking on responsibilities and doing things that footballers take many years to understand,” he said.
“Footballers need to handle a lot of situations and we are witnessing a footballer, with technique, who has all the things a top-level world player needs.”
Rodriguez tilted the match Colombia’s way by scoring his truly stunning opening goal after 28 minutes and became the tournament’s top scorer after 50 minutes with his fifth goal in four games.
While his first was down to individual brilliance, his second rounded off a beautifully-worked team effort.
Without Suarez, South American champions Uruguay had no way back and although they rallied at the end and forced two important saves from Colombian keeper David Ospina, they were well beaten.
In the end Uruguay, raging against FIFA, conspiracy theories and cursing Suarez’s fate, had no reply to a Colombia side inspired to a great victory.
“It is obvious that Luis is our main reference, the main player we have and that was felt. But that is not the reason we lost,” Uruguay captain Diego Godin said.
“This group is leaving with its head held high. When you give everything, your soul, your heart and you give yourself for the shirt people are thankful and Uruguayans are always going to be thankful.”
WORLD CUP FOLKLORE
Almost 20 years to the day after Colombia gained an unwanted place in the World Cup story with the murder of defender Andres Escobar following an own goal in a World Cup match against the United States, Colombia can now add to World Cup folklore for the right reasons.
After a cagey start, no-one in the Maracana was expecting the game to explode into life with such a stunning opening goal which came when Uruguay only half-cleared the ball as far as Carlos Sanchez, lurking alone in midfield.
He instinctively headed it back in Rodriguez’s direction and the next few seconds of play are guaranteed to be replayed time and time again down the years.
Cushioning the ball on his chest with his back to the goal the youngster, who cost AS Monaco 45.0 million euros ($61 million) when they signed him from Porto last year, swivelled and volleyed in with his left foot in one movement, powering the ball in off the bar from 20 meters.
Although the ball brushed Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera’s fingertips on its way in, he had no chance of saving it.
It rivals the header by Netherlands striker Robin van Persie against Spain and Australian Tim Cahill’s volley against the Dutch as a contender for goal of the World Cup and it will take something special to beat it.
It was also a goal that was completely out of keeping with the opening phase of the game which saw both teams hesitantly stutter around without either creating any meaningful attacks.
Five minutes after halftime a cross from Pablo Armero was headed back across goal at the far post by Juan Cuadrado for Rodriguez to tap in to effectively seal the win.
Uruguay rallied in the last 20 minutes, but Diego Forlan, the 35-year-old veteran brought in for the disgraced Suarez, is not the player he was when he was the top scorer at the 2010 World Cup.
Edinson Cavani came closest to reducing the deficit but his shot was well saved by Ospina just minutes before Uruguay’s troubled finals came to an end.