8th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann,
While winning the Champions League with Real Madrid did go some way to papering over the cracks of James Rodriguez's torrid second season at the club, it did, however, provide the perfect segue for him to enter the Copa America on something resembling a high.
As one of Colombia's undisputed stars in their quest to take out the 100th edition of the tournament, it was overwhelmingly positive for Los Cafeteros that he put in a shift full of upside to kickoff the campaign.
Playing in his favoured no10 position, a luxury he was rarely afforded at Madrid due to their tactical setup predominantly excluding a playmaker, he was afforded the ideal platform to show off his superlative skillset. And although James wasn't at his all conquering best like he was at the 2014 World Cup, there was plenty of encouragement to be drawn from his side's 2-0 win over the USA.
Aside from his exquisite ball control and crisp passing, the most influential aspect of the former FC Porto and Monaco sensation's outing was his outstanding movement and positioning. From his starting trequartista role, he persistently found space in which to operate in despite the close attention of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones.
Whether by exploiting spaces in between the lines, dropping deep to around half way to link the midfield and attack or performing subtle switches with Juan Cuadrado and Edwin Cardona on the flanks, James' intelligent variations and spatial recognition made him a hugely challenging proposition for the US to handle.
There was always purpose to his movement, not just to create space for himself, but also his teammates. The best examples of this arose in situations where he was operating in central areas. With James' preference to occupy right of centre areas and Carlos Bacca's (Colombia's forward) desire to work in left of centre areas, their brilliant understanding meant they never impeded into each other's zones - except when one pulled their defender out of position.
On 21 minutes, a fine illustration of their relationship unfolded. Here, with James having cleverly found space just in front of America's left centre-back, John Anthony Brooks, he forced the Hertha Berlin player into making a crucial decision: to step out and mark him or hold his position. Brooks choose the latter, understandably not wanting James to enjoy any freedom. Then, as soon as Bacca noticed Brooks make his decision, the AC Milan hitman immediately sprinted into the unoccupied space left behind by Brooks to successfully breach USA's backline.
Although the move ultimately didn't work out, it was fascinating to see in this instance, and on many more occasions over the duration of the contest, how well James and Bacca cohesively combined to continually rip apart the opposition defence.
With Colombia getting an early goal through Cristian Zapata in the eighth minute, Jose Pekerman's troops were content to sit back and look to hit the US on the counter. James' positioning was intriguing in such scenarios too, for he'd make sure to never track back too far so he was in a perfect position to be a viable outlet after a turnover had ensued. It was little wonder then that he instigated so many dangerous transitions via this astute tactic, which gave him the perfect launching pad to setup teammates and embark on his customary dangerous forward surges against an unset defence.
Even though he misplaced the odd pass and held onto the ball too long sometimes, his creativity, ingenuity, imagination and dynamic movement by far outweighed any negatives attached to his display. Furthermore, the 24-year-old's masterfully taken penalty also made him the youngest ever Colombian to reach 15 international goals and moved him into fifth on the all time goals list for the national team, alongside Teofilo Gutierrez.
Despite his strong body of work, his shoulder injury on 72 minutes unquestionably soured the occasion. Due to the knock occurring on the same shoulder he damaged in Real Madrid's Round of 16 Champions League tie with AS Roma earlier in the year, fear instantly arose he may miss the rest of the Copa.
"We know James is fundamental for Colombia and we know he's going to have a desire to play, but the medical staff know and will let us know how much of a risk we can take," said Pekerman on his star pupil.
But thankfully, it appears he'll just miss the Paraguay game and be back for Colombia's clash with Costa Rica on Saturday, which is indeed a massive boost for Colombia's chances of taking out the tournament.
After all, having a happy, fully fit and firing James might just be what Colombia need as they search for only their second Copa America.
The one key caveat being, of course, if he can remain fit for the entire tournament.
More from Edward at his soccer blog.
James Rodríguez A Key Cog in Columbia's Copa America Centenario Squad
8th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann,