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Fate has drawn Darwin Núñez and James Rodríguez together again

Fate has drawn Darwin Núñez and James Rodríguez together again


It is October 2023, and South America’s elite are in the throes of the third round of World Cup qualifiers. In the searing afternoon heat of Barranquilla, Colombia, the hosts go into the closing stages of their match leading Uruguay by two goals to one.

Uruguay were beaten in their previous game, away to Ecuador, and are now on the verge of a second straight defeat. The knives are already being quietly being sharpened for new coach Marcelo Bielsa. He has forced through a generational change in the national team, and some in the Uruguayan press are unhappy that he has discarded two legends of La Celeste, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani. The new centre-forward Darwin Núñez has yet to score in the campaign but, in the 91st minute, Uruguay are awarded a penalty. This is a big moment.

Up steps Núñez, who nervelessly blasts the ball into the top left corner; the game ends in a 2-2 draw, and Uruguay are on their way. A few days later Núñez is unstoppable, scoring one and making the other as Uruguay see off Brazil, 2-0, in one of the most commanding victories they have ever enjoyed against their giant neighbour. The following month he races away behind the defensive line to seal a memorable 2-0 win away to Argentina, and he follows that up with two goals in a 3-0 rout of Bolivia.

In Uruguay’s first two matches of the Copa América, Núñez finds the net against both Panama and Bolivia. In a run of six competitive games, he has helped himself to seven goals, and his international record now stands at a thoroughly respectable 13 goals in 27 games. True, as Liverpool fans will testify, he can be frustrating. Núñez has missed plenty of chances in this Copa. He can be wasteful. Sometimes he shoots when he should pass and passes when he should shoot.

But Núñez’s all-action, dynamic style is an excellent fit with the football that Bielsa wants to play and, with two wingers to keep him supplied, the chances should keep coming. Suarez is back in the squad. But so far, he has only made a couple of very brief appearances off the bench. He appears to be around as much for his experience as anything else. There is no doubt as to who leads the Uruguay attack.

That penalty in Barranquilla was the moment when Núñez came of age as Uruguay’s centre-forward. And it was also an important afternoon for another of the main names of this Copa América — the man who stands between Núñez and Uruguay and a place in Sunday’s final.

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Colombia‘s failure to make the 2022 World Cup might have marked the end of the international career of James Rodríguez. He was part of the sorry process. In an astonishing run of seven games without a single goal, he played in the last four of them. His club career was moving in ever decreasing circles, ending up (for the time being) unloved and unused in Brazil. But new national team coach Nestor Lorenzo still believed, and tentatively brought him back into the squad. In the first two rounds of World Cup qualifiers Rodríguez came off the bench in the second half.

Against Uruguay in Barranquilla, he started. And even though the match ended with Núñez banging in a penalty, it began with Rodríguez volleying Colombia into the lead. Come the end of the game he had proved that whatever was happening with his club, Rodríguez still had a future for his country.

And now the two players meet again this Wednesday in North Carolina — different stars, different sides, different virtues but equally important.

Núñez is the bringer of chaos, all unpredictable strapping instinct and never-say-die bustling determination. Rodríguez is cerebral, almost a throwback to days when the pace of the game was slower and the old-fashioned No. 10 had time and space to work his magic. If Rodríguez has time and space, it is because he is sufficiently intelligent to create it — one of the moments of the tournament was Colombia’s opening goal against Paraguay, when he checked, gained half a yard on the defender and chipped a pass to the far post that took out the entire opposing defence.

But Rodríguez also relies on the structure that his teammates provide. Colombia hide him, let him wander to find pockets of space. To make this work, the other three midfielders need to be diligent and organised, and Uruguay’s dynamism in this sector will put them to the test.

Similarly, Núñez needs his teammates to be on his wavelength. He wants Federico Valverde and Nicolás de la Cruz to give him defence-splitting passes from midfield, and he thrives on wingers Facundo Pellistri and Maxi Araújo getting round the back of the opposing full-backs to give him a cross that he can attack.

Back in October in Barranquilla the day belonged to both Núñez and Rodríguez. That cannot happen in Charlotte. This is knockout football, and the glory cannot be shared.



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