Colombia is in perhaps the most balanced group in the World Cup, and while it returns its veteran attacking stars, its defense is in the hands of Tottenham and Barcelona's young center backs.
Coming off of an impressive World Cup in Brazil, Colombia will be regarded as the tournament's dark horse by many. However, despite having a squad packed to the gills with top-class talent, the onus will be on Los Cafeteros boss Jose Pekerman to smooth over the issues that somewhat held them back throughout qualifying.
Their record against CONMEBOL's upper echelon was shady at best and utterly shambolic at worst, and with concerns surrounding how Radamel Falcao will cope with a congested fixture list, the Colombian attack could very well be reliant on James Rodriguez throughout the tournament.
However, with the aforementioned Falcao returning to goal-scoring form following two fruitless seasons in the Premier League, and with rising talents Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina being on hand to reinforce the 2014 quarterfinalists' defense, Colombia could be primed for another run in 2018. Here's a closer look at Los Cafeteros.
How They Qualified
Competing in a tough qualifying group, where only the top four out of 10 teams earned automatic qualification to Russia 2018, Colombia's qualifying campaign was a rather inconsistent affair at best.
Los Cafeteros endured a run of mixed fortune throughout the qualifiers, most notably struggling against the trio of CONMEBOL nations that had previously won the World Cup, with a shoddy record seeing them take only two points from six games against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
However, their record against the other six teams was far more befitting of their reputation, claiming seven wins and four draws against teams outside the top three, with their solitary loss coming against Paraguay on the penultimate qualifying matchday, courtesy of two last-minute goals from Oscar Cardozo and Arnaldo Sanabria.
As expected, James was Colombia's highest-scoring player in qualifying with six goals, with Edwin Cardona and Carlos Bacca notching three a piece and Falcao scoring twice.
Group Stage Games
Colombia will be part of Group H, featuring alongside Poland, Senegal and Japan, and will play its opening fixture against Japan at Mordovia Arena on June 19.
Having being drawn into a particularly competitive group, where it seems as though any of the four teams could secure passage to the last 16, Colombia should be confident of replicating its form from Brazil 2014 and topping the foursome.
However, nothing should be taken for granted in Group H, with Poland harboring a side featuring the likes of Bundesliga top scorer Robert Lewnadowski and highly rated Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski. Elsewhere, Senegal has the electric Sadio Mane and defensive expertise of Kalidou Koulibaly at its disposal and Japan will be keen to unleash Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe on the world.
Los Cafeteros have been drawn into a tough group, and so they will need to be on top of their game at each stop if they are to avoid an early elimination.
Possible Route to the Final
Should Colombia make it out of the group, it will be drawn against a member of Group G, and with Belgium and England heavily tipped to edge out Tunisia and first-timer Panama, it could be a big ask for Pekerman's men to make it to the last eight as they did four years ago.
A matchup against England would be the most favorable for the South Americans, with the Three Lions having made a name for themselves as serial flops at major competitions over the past decade.
Should Colombia top the group and make it beyond Group G's runner-up, it is highly likely that Germany would be waiting in the quarterfinals. It's likely, then, that an identical result to 2014–quarterfinal exit–would ensue.
Goalkeepers: David Ospina (Arsenal), Camilo Vargas (Deportivo Cali), José Fernando Cuadrado (Once Caldas)
Defenders: Cristian Zapata (Milan), Dávinson Sánchez (Tottenham), Santiago Arias (PSV Eindhoven), Óscar Murillo (Pachuca), Frank Fabra (Boca Juniors), Johan Mojica (Girona), Yerry Mina (Barcelona)
Midfielders: Wílmar Barrios (Boca Juniors), Carlos Sánchez (Espanyol), Jefferson Lerma (Levante), José Izquierdo (Brighton Hove & Albion), James Rodríguez (Bayern Múnich), Abel Aguilar (Deportivo Cali), Mateus Uribe (América), Juan Fernando Quintero (River Plate), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus)
Forwards: Radamel Falcao (Mónaco), Miguel Borja (Palmeiras), Carlos Bacca (Villarreal), Luis Fernando Muriel (Sevilla)
(4-2-3-1) David Ospina; Santiago Arias, Davinson Sanchez, Yerry Mina, Frank Fabra; Carlos Sanchez, Abel Aguilar; Juan Cuadrado, James Rodriguez, Carlos Bacca, Radamel Falcao
Colombia could be one of the tournaments dark horses, as with a squad packed full of quality in every department, Los Cafeteros have the potential to go far. With Pekerman's contract with Colombia expiring in July, he will be keen to see his tenure with the Colombian national side end with a bang as opposed to a whimper.
While Poland and Senegal won't be easy beats, Colombia should have just enough attacking flair to come out on top against the Group H duo. Meanwhile, Akira Nishino's Japan side shouldn't provide too much of a challenge for a team of such top-class talent.
A match-up against Belgium could well end Colombia's World Cup run rather early, although a much preferred pairing with England in the last 16 would ostensibly open a path to the quarters.
Given Colombia's struggle against top-tier opposition in qualifying, it wouldn't be a shock for Colombia's results to reflect its reality–a very good side, located somewhere on the second or third tier among the world's best.