Through two rounds, Oscar Tabarez and Uruguay are in front of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying field. (Photo credit: JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images)
Two and a bit rounds in, and, as expected, there’s very little to separate the nine World Cup hopefuls in South America.
Despite Brazil qualifying as hosts, CONMEBOL has retained its 4.5 places at the World Cup (with the top four qualifying automatically, while the fifth place team will face a play-off against a nation from the Concacaf region) meaning most expect more than half the continent to be present at South America’s first World Cup in quarter of a century.
Current kings of the continent Uruguay lead the way, but even they couldn’t manage back-to-back victories last break in what is surely going to be the most fiercely contested qualifying campaign in the history of the FIFA World Cup. Coach Oscar Tabarez resumes Uruguay’s campaign against Chile on Friday without Diego Forlan, Walter Gargano, Abel Hernandez and Jorge Fucile, but his problems pale into insignificance when juxtaposed with those of his opposite number.
Chile had lost every one of their four qualifiers in Montevideo before the last round of qualifying, when a Marcelo Salas brace stopped the rot to earn La Roja a 2-2 draw. They arrive at the Centenario off the back of an impressive victory over Peru last month, but coach Cluadio Borghi’s preparations have been thrown into turmoil following a riff with Jorge Valdivia, Jean Beausejour, Carlos Carmona, Arturo Vidal and Gonzalo Jara, all of whom have been dropped for indiscipline after breaking curfew.
"The players in question arrived 45 minutes late (to training),” Borghi explained. “I went to see them in their bedrooms and they were not in good condition.”
“We arrived approximately 40 minutes late,” admitted Beausejour, “we apologize for that… but not for Claudio Borghi’s statement that we were in an inadequate state, although there was alcohol intake.”
“We’re aware of the mistake we made,” added playmaker Jorge Valdivia, whose son’s baptism the players had attended, “but we will not accept the statements of Borghi.”
Despite the war of words intensifying by the hour, Borghi remains obstinate, insisting that the “The show must go on.” He’ll at least find some consolation in the fact that Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez returns from injury and is expected to start.
On Tuesday Chile host a Paraguay side confident they will arrive in Santiago with their first win of the campaign under their belt. New coach Francisco Arce has asked for patience as he attempts to fill previous coach Gerrardo Martino’s sizeable shoes. Having been battered in their opener with Peru in Lima, there were some positives for Arce in Paraguay’s 1-1 draw with Uruguay with last month, and he has called for the cohesion and teamwork his team showed in the second half of that match.
“[We have to play] with the same virtues we showed against Uruguay,” the coach told the Paraguayan press this week. “To play well you to have [the ball]… you have to move, you have to be united.”
Roque Santa Cruz will miss out through injury, but La Albirroja do welcome back Lucas Barrios for Friday’s clash against Ecuador, who have lost on all six of their visits to the Paraguayan capital in qualification. Reinaldo Rueda’s men were impressive in their opener, blitzing a Venezuela side that failed to acclimatize to the altitude in Quito, and will likely be satisfied whatever the result on Friday should they defeat Peru in Quito four days later.
Reuda was left frustrated this week when his team were forbidden to train with soccer cleats on the Defensores del Chaco pitch, but he’s optimistic that Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez will overcome his injury concerns to form the fulcrum of a front-line that has showed what the coach described as a “collective solidarity” that will “improve with every game.”
Ecuador have won their last five matches since crashing out of Copa America 2011 at the first hurdle, and Reuda insists his team’s chances of gaining a result on Friday rest on their ability to “seize the ball in midfield… and impose our rhythm” on a Paraguay team that continue to look devoid of creativity since the loss of Salvador Cabanas.
Colombia, too, have suffered from a lack of creativity and an inability to link play between the lines. Racing playmaker Giovanni Moreno seems the most obvious answer, but he didn’t make the squad, with coach Lionel Alvarez seemingly ready to place that responsibility on the young shoulders of Porto’s James Rodriguez.
“James is doing very well in that position,” said former international Carlos Valderrama. “We have to support him because he is motivated and he needs support as I believe we have some player here.”
The loss of striker Radamel Falcao to injury this week has been a serious blow, however. The Atletico Madrid man, who grabbed his side’s last minute winner against Bolivia, has been replaced by Jackson Martinez.
First up for Alvarez’s men is a Venezuela side that possess serious intentions of making it to their first ever World Cup finals. Cesar Farias’ side followed up a disappointing result in their first qualifier with a historic 1-0 over Argentina.
“Undoubtedly, this game is more even than it has been in the history between the two teams,” said Farias this week,” [because of] the quality of the players and the results obtained in the Copa America.”
Argentina, meanwhile, will look to get back on track with what will likely be the easiest game they will play in this campaign when Bolivia travel to El Monumental on Friday. Left-back has long been a problem position for Argentina, but the inclusion of Boca Juniors’ Clemente Rodriguez should provide a better option for coach Alejandro Sabella, who has denied reports he would field something of a reserve side against the Bolivians.
Angel di Maria is unavailable after suffering an injury whilst playing for Real Madrid, and so Lionel Messi is likely slot in alongside Gonzao Higuain and Kun Aguero in an attacking trident. “All three have enormous potential and perhaps might play,” admitted Sabella, who also confirmed he would abandon the strategy that saw him field three central defenders against Venezuela.
The Argentinian public seem to have more patience with Sabella than they did with his predecessor, Sergio Batista, but there might just be a few knives being sharpened should the former Estudiantes coach fail to find an offensive fluency this week. The real test for Messi and co. will come on Tuesday, in the heat of Barranquilla against Colombia.