When Giovanni Moreno raced some fifteen yards in pursuit of a 50/50 one sunny December afternoon in Buenos Aires, you just knew something wasn’t right.
Star of the Apertura season, the Racing Club playmaker had dazzled crowds both in and out of Avellaneda with his sublime individual skill, borderline x-ray vision and a subtlety of touch utterly unbefitting a man of his size. La Academia’s latest enganche had made quite a reputation for himself during his first six months in Argentine soccer. Gio was by now well accustomed to a bit of the ‘rough stuff.’ Battling midfield 5’s remain lauded figures in Argentina, with only a crunching tackle rivalling the roars of approval that greet a good old caño (nutmeg).
That afternoon, however, it went a little too far. After 75 minutes of being kicked, punched, scratched, and repeatedly threatened by All Boys’ somewhat rambunctious veteran 5, Hugo Barrientos, Moreno lost it and did the unthinkable: he tracked back to make a tackle.
The resulting challenge was every bit as unfortunate as it was incongruous, leaving the gangly Colombian with a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligaments in his knee. Gio would spend at least six months on the sideline. Sorely missed as Racing Club’s early title challenge eventually petered out, he was notable in his absence once again last night as Colombia opened its Copa America campaign with a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez was in the process of building a team around Moreno, allowing the 24-year-old the freedom of ‘the hole’ in behind the striker to link the play and act as his side’s creative spark. With players of his ilk an ever decreasing species in modern soccer, replacing him was never going to be easy.
Colombia comes into the tournament with its strikers in fine form. Hugo Rodallega enjoyed a productive end to the season with Wigan, Moreno’s club-mate Teo Gutierrez was top scorer in the Argentine Clausura and Falcao is one of Europe’s most wanted, having made history with a stunning 17 goals on the way to helping Porto lift the Europa League. Colombia’s problem wasn’t likely to be taking its chances, but making them in the first place.
The issue was highlighted almost immediately when Randall Brenes’ wild and reckless challenge on Luis Perea was quickly punished with a straight red card. Costa Rica was ready to park the bus; Colombia had to find a way through. “It was clear that they planned to be cautious,” said Falcao, “and we couldn’t find a lot of space to attack.” To his credit, Gomez immediately made an attacking substitution, introducing Rodallega and switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, with the Wigan man slotting in behind Falcao. Colombia would go on to dominate possession for the remainder of the match, with Costa Rica goalkeeper Leonel Moreira making a number of good blocks, but for all their possession, most of Moreira’s work was a result of shots from range or headers from set pieces.
One of those charged with filling the creative void is Freddy Guarin. The Porto man’s career had looked as if it had stalled prior to the arrival of Andre Villas-Boas at the Dragao, and it wasn’t until an injury to Fernando halfway through last season that Guarin was given the chance to prove his worth. An opportunity he grabbed with both hands, playing probably the best football of his career in his club’s run to a league, cup, and European treble this year. It was his superb pass from deep that saw the onrushing Adrian Ramos net the all-important goal yesterday. Guarin will be surrounded by runners for the remainder of the tournament, with the likes of Ramos, Camilo Zuniga and Dayro Moreno all too willingly displaying their vigour; it looks as if it will be down to Guarin to find them.
“We were humble and we moved forward,” said Gomez last night. "I told them if we did not pass [through] the first round I would go, but it’s is very hard and this is a team in development.” With many of the teams in this year’s Copa using the competition predominantly to prepare for the next round of World Cup qualification, the real positive for Gomez could yet prove to be the assurance that Moreno may just complete the puzzle.