James Rodriguez remains Colombia’s inspiration despite waning club career

Almost 13 minutes of a winding, self-reflective press conference had passed before Luis de la Fuente cut to the chase.

It was not a lack of desire, inexperience, experimentation — or any of the other life rings thrown by the media — that could explain a loss of control in the second half of Spain’s 1-0 defeat to Colombia. Rather, it all came down to a single opponent with the talent to flip a game on its head.

“James Rodriguez,” the Spanish head coach declared. “He was the one who made the difference.”

It has only been three years since this former Galactico graced the Premier League stage, but Rodriguez already feels like a name from a nebulous past.

Mikel Merino attempts to hold off Rodriguez (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

He was a player who could hardly move without fanfare throughout his twenties, billions witnessing his iconic breakthrough at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but an unceremonious end to an initially exciting spell at Everton saw interest in Colombia’s golden boy start to dwindle.

A hastily-agreed move to the Qatari Stars League with Al Rayyan followed, before a brief stop in Greek football also turned sour as injury problems and inflated wages forced Olympiacos to let him go. Now at Sao Paulo, in and out of last season’s top-flight squad, his club career continues to tail off.

Irrespective of fitness and form, however, the yellow of Colombia never fails to awaken the talent within. Although Rodriguez did not directly contribute to last night’s win, his 45-minute cameo underlined the spark he can still bring to a steadily improving side.

After a dreary first half, it was his thumping effort from distance that shocked a simmering crowd into action, receiving the ball in time and space from Daniel Munoz and sending a shot careering towards Alex Ramiro’s goal without a second thought.

Both Luis Diaz and Mateo Cassierra threw their arms into the air and off went a flare in the stands — this was a flash of inspiration that seemed to ignite the occasion.

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Much like Diaz, who was largely left isolated up against Pedro Porro in a stodgy first half, there was a tangible sense of excitement whenever Rodriguez collected the ball. It would be precisely those two players to combine for the decisive goal.

As a Spanish attack breaks down, Rodriguez receives the ball in a pocket of space. Once again, it is the clarity and speed of thought that sets the No 10 apart, taking just two seconds to assess his options, spin, and dig out a perfectly weighted pass down the line for Diaz to chase.

In frame three, Diaz zig-zags his way around Dani Vivian, shin-pad flying off in typically intense fashion, before standing up a cross to the backvpost for Munoz to fling himself at and score.

A pitch-sweeping move and a dramatic, acrobatic finish from the Crystal Palace defender, but it was Rodriguez who triggered the goal that an excitable, colourful, east London crowd craved.

Colombia goal

Aside from the game-changing moments, Rodriguez reminded onlookers of his tidy touches in deeper areas, too; helping to knit together a handful of passing moves with quick feet in tight spaces and constantly inviting the nearest team-mate into the game.

“He interpreted the game really well,” De la Fuente continued. “We were a bit more open than we usually are in the second half and, particularly when he linked up with Luis Diaz from deep, he really hurt us.”

While he might not boast the explosiveness of previous years, Rodriguez showed himself to be the man to bring it out of the rest.

With yet another victory, Colombia have extended a two-year unbeaten streak to 20 games having beaten Brazil, Germany and now Spain along the way. Head coach Nestor Lorenzo has won 12 of his 17 games in charge and looks to have already settled on a solid 4-2-3-1 system that protects the middle of the pitch and hits the wings quickly on the break.

Affectionately referred to as “El Professor” (The Professor) throughout the post-match interviews, he carries an air of confidence and calm, offering a sensible assessment after more frenzied questioning from the floor.

“James is a great player, very unique,” he said. “We thought it would be ideal that he came on for the second half and he did really well.

“We all know what he has to offer, it does not surprise me. Hopefully, he can play more club football now and come to the national team with 90 minutes in him.”

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Rodriguez applauds the fans after his team’s victory against Spain (Warren Little/Getty Images)

At 32, Rodriguez should still have plenty left in the tank. What felt like a blast from the past at the London Stadium was really a reminder that Colombia’s shining star has not quite burned out and he is still shouldering the hopes of a nation ahead of this summer’s Copa America.

With each passing victory, quiet optimism continues to creep up.

“We know he will get the fitness back because this national team makes him feel a special kind of way,” concluded Lorenzo. “Everybody in Colombia knows that.”

(Top photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

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