Amid all the conflict and the commotion with European clubs releasing (or declining to) players for the international break, South America’s ultra-competitive World Cup qualification campaign resumes on Thursday with the first of three rounds in the next week, which will take the competition to its halfway stage.
A large part of the appeal is that no one is making up the numbers. All 10 teams see themselves with a chance of earning a place at Qatar 2022; the first four teams go through automatically, with the side finishing fifth going into a playoff. And with a third of the competition played, no one is out of the hunt. The teams at the bottom of the table (Venezuela and Peru) are just four points behind Uruguay in fourth, a distance that Peru will narrow to just a single point if they win at home to the Uruguayans in the match that brings the round to a close.
Much as they did after the Copa Centenario in 2016, Peru will hope to rekindle their campaign with the momentum they picked up in this summer’s Copa America in Brazil, where they finished fourth. And, after injury forced him to sit out the Copa, they can celebrate the return of talismanic captain and centre-forward Paolo Guerrero.
There is something different about the latter case, though. Veteran Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez made it clear that he no longer wished to call up Cavani for these games, and the explanation would seem to be that the coach does not believe that the 10-day quarantine period on return to the UK would be good for the player’s fitness levels. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the whole affair, this shows precisely why Tabarez is such a class act and why, in the words of former captain Diego Lugano, he has never had to swear at a player in his epic spell in charge that now stretches more than 15 years.
With the players caught in a club-vs.-country tug-of-war, Tabarez seems to be the only one putting the interests of his player above all other considerations.
The lack of the England-based players will be most felt in the meeting of Chile and Brazil in Santiago: the Selecao will be without nine of their original squad. The only reason they have not kicked up more of a fuss is because they have a 100% record in the competition, and are already within sight of having enough points to book their place. Coach Tite, then, can afford to have a look at options. His aim is no longer to construct a team capable of making it to Qatar, but one good enough to win Brazil’s first World Cup in 20 years.
Chile, down in seventh place, only have two players missing, but the absence of Blackburn striker Ben Brereton Diaz will be keenly felt. His thrust and enthusiasm made a positive impression in the Copa, and with Alexis Sanchez out injured, it is hard to see where Chile’s goals will come from.
Buoyed by their recent Copa America triumph, Argentina are relatively comfortable in second place, six points behind Brazil, who they meet on Sunday. They have also managed to secure the services of their four Premier League players — for the first two games at least, although Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Cristian Romero is suspended for Thursday’s visit to Venezuela.
But if calm prevails among the visitors, the hosts have to deal with an element of chaos. Jose Peseiro, Venezuela’s Portuguese coach, recently resigned in protest of 14 months of unpaid wages. Former national team defender Leonardo Gonzalez has stepped in on a caretaker basis. Runners-up in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, Venezuela went into this campaign with high hopes of making their debut in the senior competition. After six rounds, though, they have scored just three goals, and it is up to a stand in coach to try and get things back on track.
Ecuador are in third place but, adding up the two rounds in June and the Copa America, they have gone seven games without a win. The evidence from the Copa was contradictory: On the one hand they produced fine performances against Brazil and Argentina; on the other, they were leaking goals with alarming ease, identified as the key problem by coach Gustavo Alfaro. They could, then, be more cautious than usually is the case for home games when they take on Paraguay at the altitude of Quito. Wary of the conditions, the Paraguayans will almost certainly pack the midfield and wait for their opportunity. If the breakthrough does not come early, will Ecuador overreach and leave themselves exposed? A win for sixth-placed Paraguay would leapfrog them above Ecuador — an indication of how tight things are in the table below Brazil and Argentina.
There is further evidence for this in the opening game of the round, where Bolivia host Colombia. With two away draws either side of a home win, Bolivia have their campaign back on track after a disastrous start. Every away point is a bonus. Still down in eighth place, they are well aware of the need to take maximum advantage of the extreme altitude of La Paz, and a victory will draw them level on points with the Colombians, who currently lie in fifth — the playoff position.
One of the features of this round is that it pits the top five in the table against the bottom five, but margins are so tight that Thursday’s action will surely shake up the qualification table.
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