Part one of Cali2020 was an update seven months in the making. My Amèrica side were the best performers in the league from January until May but had fizzled out at a crucial time. We now needed to win something again, and time was running out.
The thing which attracted me to Colombia in the first place was that you didn’t need to maintain consistency over a full season to have a chance at winning the title. This was perfect for the way I played and in winning our first title we did not top the league. I guess it is only fair then that the first time in the save we do top the table, we did not then go on to seal the title.
It has been a long time since that trophy win, around two and a half years in-game, and, although we had some highs, we didn’t make a final since the first league in May 2018. I came to Colombia trying to win things, I started FM19 trying to win the Copa Libertadores, okay we are far off that, but it is not beyond our reach of regular domestic silverware. I can look back and identify where we went wrong in each competition.
2018 (I): 2nd in table / title win
2018 (II): 5th in table / semifinal
2019 (I): 3rd in table / semifinal
2019 (II): 9th in table
2020 (I): 1st in table / semifinal
2018: exit at first round
2019: exit at quarterfinal
2018: not qualified
2019: Copa Libertadores: 3rd in group / Copa Sudamericana: semifinal
So many nearly stories, but ultimately a failure since that first title. In 2019 I over-rotated and put too much faith in players who were not good enough as I had one eye on development. I solved the defensive side of this in the transfer window by bringing in some quality and proven players. Danilo Arboleda was at América in 2018 on loan but I have now brought him back in permanently as he was the best defender available and one of the best in Colombia. This move was a notable upgrade on some of the players which I was aiming to develop for future years. The improvement with him in defence was notable during the first phase, we conceded far fewer goals than the year before. In the first six months of 2020, with Arboleda, our side conceded 12 goals in 25 games, compared with 30 in 31 matches in the second half of 2019.
The obvious fault of our side was in attack, and so I needed to bring in some quality there. Gonzalo Cabrera came in with a hefty price and became one of our highest earners on 3.4k per week. His impact was notable though and in 38 games of the season he would provide 10 assists and 6 goals. The inclusion of these new, first team ready players meant that some of the younger prospects, which needed game time, would be pushed down the order. I loaned out the players I could but, for those not wanted by another club, I moved to the reserves. Over the course of the year I had five or six conversations with these players about game time, but I am here to win things and they had not proven they were good enough when given the chance previously. It was the first time in Football Manager I had taken a tough stance. The majority of the senior squad agreed during the disputes, and I negotiated the team meetings quite well.
Going into the second half of the season I knew that, with FM20 around the corner, the save would end. Six months and three possible trophies to aim for. The Copa Sudamericana would be our main focus going forward, a continental prize would be an excellent ending to the save. Failing this I would aim for the Copa Colombia, I haven’t won the domestic cup and, with a favourable draw, we could get far. Finally, As long as we finish in the top eight league places then we can have a run at the league later in the year, but while still in the other competitions it will not be a priority.
It’s with the Copa Sudamericana where we start but, considering it was our priority, we fall far short. As with the previous year, we bow out to Brazilian opposition, this time São Paulo. In all fairness, we could have exited at the first hurdle given that Racing of Argentina stood in our way. We negotiated that round courtesy of a win at home and our defensive staying strong in the away leg. Curicó Unido of Chile didn’t pose much threat in the next round as we beat them home and away.
The gap in quality was not huge against São Paulo but, aside from a disallowed goal, we were unable to score. The away leg was first and we held out for 77 minutes before our defensive solidity weakened. I felt confident of overturning the 1-0 deficit at home and we promised much during the first half. A 53rd-minute sucker punch on the counter effectively knocked us out though. Their second late in the game came as we threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the visitors. Still, no shame in a third-round defeat to a Brazilian side.
Continental glory was always going to be the most difficult, especially at this stage in the save. I do regret not getting through a few more season and seeing if it would have been possible, especially as Colombia have a league which can challenge for these honours. Time to back up my claim to this being a successful save by winning another domestic trophy then…. maybe.
Our inclusion in continental competition meant we entered the Copa Colombia in a later round, but the route to the semi-final couldn’t have been more difficult. Atletico Nacional and Millionarios are two sides who hold a higher status currently in Colombia than América. We actually lost away to the holders of the cup, Nacional, but overall we progressed a little more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. A narrow home win over Millonarios was backed up with an emphatic 6-2 away win in Bogotá. One of those games where everything we hit went in.
Lower mid-table side Alianza Petrolera stood between us and the final, a decent draw considering the size of the teams we had already beaten. As has always seemed the way in Colombia though, we struggled a little against a side which should be brushed aside. A laboured 1-0 win in the home leg was a concern, though they offered little attacking threat. The fact they had only one shot on target the whole 180 minutes was helpful as first choice ‘keeper, Nicolas Vidal, was out with a knock. Vidal played in 57 of the 60 games in 2020 so far but fortunately, we didn’t miss him when he was absent. The worry from the semifinal was that we didn’t create much, but a professional job in the second leg saw us progress.
I am still unsure how I feel about two-legged finals. Perhaps because I’ve not been exposed to them much throughout my footballing life I find them odd. For me, a final, particularly a domestic one should be a showpiece event, but maybe this is a ‘little England’ view where we have the opportunity and money to travel. In South America, seeing your team in a final (or half a final) in your home stadium would be unforgettable, if not a bit of an anticlimax if it was the first leg.
América travelled to Bucaramanga for the first leg before they came to Cali eight days later. We started the final on the front foot, taking the lead after 12 minutes. Bucaramanga came back into the game soon after and at half time the tie was level. Normally I would make my first substitution around 60 minutes but chose to delay as we were on top. Just as I was going to the tactics screen we won a freekick level with the 6-yard-box out on the right. Likely player of the season Mateo Cardona swung in a cross and defensive midfielder Carvajal gave us a lead to take back to Cali.
Taking a narrow lead into a second leg is tricky, do you protect what you have or believe you can extend the lead? I went with consistency and kept the team the same as before. Five minutes into the game and Bucaramanga has drawn level on aggregate 2-2. It was a wake-up call but being so early in the day there weren’t many changes I could make. It came from a lofted cross and their striker finding some space to nod it home. “Demand more” came the shouts from the sidelines and it seemed to focus the team. In the 25th minute, we won what I would say is a soft penalty for a push in the box. It was the slice of fortune sides need if they are to win titles and Cardona made no mistake from the spot. Half time came and we once again had a narrow lead on aggregate, away goals don’t count in this competition, so nothing overly concerning there.
It was that man Cardona again in a big game who finds the net and it was a beauty. Early cross from right-back García, who set up the first goal in leg one, which Cardona was able to hit first time. Imagine how good that goal would look in 3D! Things got comfortable after that once we had the feeling the game was in our hands. That feeling was realised with 12 minutes remaining as Cardona put in a cross for Aristeguieta to easily head home and the players could celebrate not just his first goal in nine games, but also another title. América had not won the Copa Colombia before this and with Cardona’s two goals and two assists over the final, he was deserving of player of the tournament.
In terms of timeline, that pretty much brings us up to date, but we did have a league campaign interspersed between the cup competitions. Having learnt from previous seasons I have tried to not over-rotate the side, we only need top eight but I want to keep a consistency in form and results. That wasn’t always possible as shown with the first three games of the season. An opening day win over top side Once came as a surprise, and I did start to think we could do well during this run. We then travelled to São Paulo in midweek, before playing local rivals Deportivo Cali the following weekend. I put out a side which should have been able to get a result but was lacking in a little creativity. The likes of Cardona and first choice fullbacks were rested and so we came away with a goalless draw. The mixed start was compounded with a shock 1-3 defeat at home to low side Cortulua, it was one of those games to just save then quit right after. One or two defeats over the season aren’t so bad but to be outclassed by a low side this early in the season was a concern. There is, however, no such thing as a bad defeat as long as you learn from it. I over-rotated for this game and paid the price. We were eliminated from the Copa Sudamericana soon after so the task got easier going forward.
In general, we had a good run after that defeat, a few draws too many but we were solid and defensively sound. It would be a run of 13 games before we lost again, putting us in a great league position. The next wobble in league form came when we had four games in 12 days, the last of which being the Copa Colombia final. We prepped for that game with a 1-0 away defeat to Envigado, but it was expected as all ten outfield players were rested for the final. I can only hope the few travelling fans forgave us for the following week. Strangely, despite the defeat, we qualified for the league playoffs which two games to spare.
By this point, we were second in the table, one point behind Medellín. They were our next opponents following the Copa Colombia victory and with only three days to prepare the temptation was to rotate. I didn’t do that however and started eight of the players who won the Copa Colombia, including Mateo Cardona. He scored his 15th goal of the year in a 3-1 win as we moved to the top of the table for the first time. A 0-0 draw at Santa Fe could have blown our chances of finishing top but Medellín could only draw themselves.
As always, finishing 1st or 8th is no bearing on who wins the title, the next rounds of playoff games will give that answer. It is the second time though that we have finished first, and both times in 2020, proving that we are one of the best sides in Colombia. Now to try and win another title to go with it…