NOTE: This is translated from an original piece for ESPN Argentina.
No Colombian wants to even imagine it. James Rodriguez's possible absence for the most important match of the past few years is something that fills the fans with concern. The No. 10 is the Tricolor's flag-bearer and in the only match he has been able to play the full 90 minutes this summer, against Poland, he was one key to the victory.
His influence is unquestionable and that is why Jose Pekerman is already working to strengthen the collective so Colombia's national team suffer as little as possible in Rodriguez's absence, which is not yet confirmed but is increasingly possible.
As always, his fitness is a mystery. According to the official report, the situation doesn't sound so bad: "Minor swelling with no muscle tear on his right soleus." These words mean nothing without the context of an estimated time of recovery. His injury is similar to that one suffered by Abel Aguilar against Poland, which left him out of the clash against Senegal and had him training in special sessions for almost a week.
Pekerman is hopeful his talisman will be ready to face England on Tuesday. "[James] doesn't have a serious tear, neither big nor serious. He's made a lot of progress. We have a day-and-a-half to monitor his recovery," Pekerman said during his pre-match news conference -- but it's smart to prepare for all eventualities. Therefore, it's best to imagine a match against England without James, as painful as it may be.
James, born in Cucuta, was sidelined in the opener against Japan due to muscle fatigue on his left leg. Pekerman decided to play that game with two central defensive midfielders, Wilmar Barrios and Carlos Sanchez, with Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, Juan Fernando Quintero and Jose Izquierdo further up field. There was no time to see if the idea could work, as Sanchez's red card after just three minutes affected the entire dynamic of the team. James came on during the second half but he did not look comfortable and never played a key role.
Colombia's national team delivered their best performance in their second group stage match: James was in the starting lineup and had Quintero at his side. Wilmar and Aguilar were also starters, but Mateus Uribe was later called into action and had a very good performance. The James-Quintero partnership boosted Colombia because the Bayern Munich midfielder took responsibilities from the River Plate player and freed him up. In any case, the No. 20 proved that he is qualified enough to take over as leader of his national team if James is not there.
If there's a reason why Colombia shouldn't panic, it is that even in James' absence this is still a creative team. Quintero's impressive work over the three group games does not replace James' contributions, but it does at least ease the pressure on his teammates. The former Nacional and DIM player creates at least a couple of clear scoring chances a match and, even though he does not offer the same range of movement as James, he can lead with the ball at his feet.
How should Colombia play against England without James?
That's the question the staff is asking themselves, but the truth is that they have several options. The line of four is working fine and won't be modified. Maybe Farid Diaz could replace Johan Mojica to add security and physical presence, but it's more likely that Santiago Arias, Davinson Sanchez, Yerry Mina and Mojica will be part of the starting XI.
Doubts begin in the midfield. Sanchez started against Senegal and even though it was not his best match, he is a unanimous pick for Pekerman. He was joined by Uribe, who didn't show his best qualities in that game either and could look to exploit. Up field, Quintero, Cuadrado and Falcao will start; uncertainty remains, concerning the man who will play on the left as a replacement for James.
If Pekerman wants four attackers he will probably go for Luis Muriel, who replaced James versus Senegal, since he wore down their rivals with his play and that could be crucial against England's wingers. Jose Izquierdo could get another chance, even though his performance against Japan wasn't very convincing. It does not look like Miguel Borja's time has come and as such, Uribe seems like a more likely replacement for James: His tireless work up and down the field would release Quintero from such obligations and free him up for his creative duties.
Playing the round of 16 without James wouldn't be easy but Colombia must think of a way of replacing him and still keep as intact as possible their collective structure. They have men who can counter their leader's absence and defeat a prestigious but vulnerable opponent. If they succeed, James should be ready to play the quarterfinals.