Veteran defender Mario Yepes earned special praise from coach Jose Pekerman after South American dark horses Colombia cantered into the World Cup knockout round on Thursday with a 2-1 win over Ivory Coast.
“He was playing against the elite of Europe – Gervinho, Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou – all physically strong with great technique,” said Pekerman, referring to Ivory Coast’s European-based continent.
“Yepes has a great mentality. He has been very strong and he is a reference point for his teammates, it was a top-level performance,” said the Argentine.
Central defender Yepes, who is 38 and came onto the scene just after the 1998 World Cup, came to the rescue early in the second half after a Pablo Armero miskick let in Max Gradel.
WATCH: James Rodriguez heads in
The South Americans, who fell to Cameroon at the last-16 stage in Italy in 1990 with a team featuring the likes of Rene Higuita and Carlos Valderrama, had not qualified for soccer’s global showpiece since 1998.
“We have had two wins with players who are taking part at their first World Cup which is very positive for us, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Pekerman.
“After many years of frustration, we have given satisfaction to the public, who have great passion for football. It’s been very painful missing out on this event.”
WATCH: Juan Quintero scores the second
Colombia were deserved winners in an entertaining encounter and have now won two games at a finals for the first time in five appearances.
After a tight first half the game exploded into life with three goals in nine minutes midway through the second, starting when Colombia’s James Rodriguez beat substitute Didier Drogba to the ball and thumped in a header from a 64th-minute Juan Cuadrado corner.
Juan Quintero ran clear to make it 2-0 after 70 minutes after Rodriguez had robbed Serey Die in midfield but Gervinho cut in through three defenders to score an excellent individual goal three minutes later to halve the deficit.
Pekerman also waxed lyrical about playmaker Rodriguez.
“He has reached the very highest standards among players with his characteristics,” he said. “He is mature, he has commitment, he can finish, he has vision, he can shoot and today he scored with a header to add something else to his technical qualities.
“I’m very happy, this is a united group. We never lack that courage and valour.
Quintero said: “It was very tough, but the team showed class and personality, and we scored at the right time.
“At the end, we gave them the ball, but that’s normal because you can’t overrun a team like Ivory Coast. We ended tight and we stuck to our tactics.”
Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi said his team had not deserved to lose and a draw would have been a fair result.
“We need to recover and be proud of ourselves,” he said. “I feel we lost unfairly and we need to fight for a victory against Greece.
“A very experienced Colombia team waited for us to make mistakes and we did make mistakes,” added the Frenchman.
WATCH: Gervinho pulls one back
Ivory Coast have never made it to the knockout round, finishing third in their group on their debut in 2006 and again in South Africa four years ago.
Colombia play Japan on Tuesday in Cuiaba, when Ivory Coast take on Greece in Fortaleza.