KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - After stumbling in their opening World Cup defeat by Japan, Colombia were back to their salsa-dancing best on Sunday with a 3-0 rout of Poland after talisman James Rodriguez made a stunning return to the starting lineup.
Jose Pekerman’s ‘Cafeteros’ lit up Brazil four years ago during a sparkling run to the quarter-finals, with playmaker Rodriguez racking up six goals - plus a hatful of assists - to waltz away with the Golden Boot award.
On Sunday at Kazan Arena, the team recaptured those heady days with three stylish goals from Yerry Mina, captain Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado, two of them set up by 26-year-old magician Rodriguez.
Having nursed a muscle injury into the tournament, Rodriguez came off the bench in the second half of the 2-1 loss to Japan but was unable to conjure an equalizer for 10-man Colombia, despite constantly threatening to do so.
Knowing a defeat by Poland would mean World Cup oblivion, Pekerman rushed Rodriguez back into the starting side in a menacing attacking trio with Juan Quintero and Cuadrado.
On a sweltering night, Rodriguez took some time to warm to his task, but struck a heavy blow to Poland’s confidence in the 40th minute.
Having ghosted inside the box, he chipped a sumptuous ball into the danger area, setting up Mina’s header from point-blank range to kick off the Colombian party.
Rodriguez later administered the coup de grace, with a dash down the wing and a raking left-footed pass that somehow beat three Polish defenders before landing at the feet of the grateful Cuadrado, who finished off the work with his own brilliant touch.
The superstardom that followed his heroics in Brazil proved a heavy burden for Rodriguez between the two World Cup tournaments, and he was loaned out to Bayern Munich after a difficult spell at Real Madrid.
He shouldered much of the blame for Colombia’s patchy qualifying campaign, and the tension was evident when he flashed a middle finger towards journalists at the Colombian football federation’s offices in Bogota last year.
But the world’s biggest stage seems built for Rodriguez, and he can expect to wake up to glowing tributes in the nation’s newspapers on Monday.
It was also a big night for Falcao, who missed out on Colombia’s 2014 party through injury.
The Monaco man savored his first World Cup goal, doubling the lead after 70 minutes when Quintero’s pass allowed him to beat the last defender before sliding the ball past the keeper.
“I think that this is one of the greatest joys that we received tonight,” said Pekerman, whose team are third in Group H on three points behind Japan and Senegal, both on four apiece.
“He is a symbol of the national team, of Colombian football.
“We always hope that he can score and he can be fit as he was in the match today.
“We want to help him as a team so that he can show all his skill and shine.”
Editing by Ken Ferris