As he nears closer to retirement, AC Milan defender Mario Yepes is receiving more praise and recognition for his defensive play than ever before. Anthony Lopopolo writes.
On July 15, 2011
I first discovered Mario Yepes in 2010 when he made his move from Chievo Verona to AC Milan. As a Milan fan, I had the delightful privilege of observing the Colombian play in the heart of defence — unfortunately, just not enough. Brought in to replace retired defender Giuseppe Favalli, Yepes was not considered a starter by anyone — including himself.
Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta, arguably comprising the strongest defensive partnership in Europe, linked together for the majority of Milan’s games. But there was one particular game, while a loss mainly due to an error of his own, that proved to me the two sides of his equally risky and rewarding play.
Against Tottenham in the first leg of the Round of 16, AC Milan took on the English side without Thiago Silva in the lineup. When he or Nesta is not on the field, the red-and-black defensive wall is statistically more prone to breaches in security. Yepes, however, filled the void comfortably in each of the 13 games he was called upon and almost made an impact on the score sheet in the Champions League.
A pugnacious defender, Yepes twice launched two fantastic, goal-bound headers in the direction of Tottenham’s goal. Twice keeper Heurelho Gomes denied him. Desperate for a goal to break the scoreless deadlock, Milan pushed forward in the final minutes and neglected their own back end, susceptible to the easiest of counterattacks. Backpedaling away from oncoming Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon, Yepes was admittedly hesitant to throw himself at the Englishman. He eventually did so with reluctance, almost as if he meant to miss him, and he did so with the intention to avoid a straight red card. Lennon jumped over him like a low hurdle and passed the ball to an open Peter Crouch, whose away goal eventually ensured Tottenham’s passage into the next round.
That’s exactly it, though: Yepes is at his best when he does not second-guess himself. When he does things naturally, shrugging off the weight of any risks, Yepes performs dominantly. At his best, the defender does not so much tackle an opponent as he does swipe the ball from the toes of their feet. Not elegant, but forceful. He best challenges the ball carrier without regrets and often lunges at the ball like an airborne spear. He is accurate most of the time, but he must realize that, if we were to take out the threat, Yepes would trip them up like a martial artist. But for all his gambles, he is not clumsy. For a player of his perilous nature, Yepes only acquired 19 yellow cards in 74 Serie A games and not a single red card among them. He has never registered a red card in European competition.
In the 11 games in which he started for Milan, only six goals were scored against them. Even though he was labelled for the majority of Milan’s 2010-11 championship season as an unused substitute, Yepes showed he can play with the confidence of a starter.
Currently playing for his homeland of Colombia in Argentina for the Copa America, Yepes has gotten the chance to captain his national side. Not ever experiencing a World Cup game as a player, though certainly deserving of one such experience, the 35-year-old is getting the most recognition he has ever gotten — all in his final days on the pitch.
Tim Vickery, a BBC football journalist based in Brazil, wrote in a column on betting.betfair.com that Yepes is starting to wear down, the price many aging defenders pay as they reach the pearly gates of their football career. Against Argentina, Vickery envisioned Yepes giving away the first penalty of the Copa America. Vickery was not prophetic in the end, but he did sum up his play with the same punchy language as the play of Yepes.
“He has always been unorthodox — he goes to ground much more than the coaching manual would advise,” he wrote, “getting away with it because his timing in the tackle is so good.” ♦
Anthony Lopopolo is an Italian-Canadian freelance sportswriter and an unabashed apologist for all things Serie A. He has written for such publications as The National newspaper, The Hockey News magazine and the National Post. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.