Sabella still looking for magic formula
Perhaps it was the knowledge that there are no points at stake until next June that added the spice and tension to the latest round of qualifiers in South America.
With nothing else to be done for the next seven months other than stare at the qualification table, watch back dvds and mull over mistakes from the past and options for the future, the need for positive results – if not performances – was evident. Maybe this explains Alejandro Sabella's effusive touchline celebration, after Argentina came back from a goal down to beat Colombia.
Perhaps it is why Claudio Borghi confided in his wife that he was nervous ahead of Chile's clash with Paraguay, and he never gets nervous before matches. It could explain why Cesar Farías, whose Venezuela team is sitting third in the group on the back of a strong Copa America, reminded the press his team is not a rock band, and it needs privacy.
However, unlike his South American hermanos, who may well be looking forward to the break after the stress of the qualifiers, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabárez hopes for the year to continue.
"It is magical what is happening to us, it is amazing us, it is very difficult to achieve this," said the 'maestro'.
Technically, Uruguay had the day off. With Brazil hosting the next World Cup, the South American qualifying group is down to nine, and this round of double-headers handed Uruguay just the one fixture.
Like the diligent students they are under former teacher Tabárez, the Copa America champions made the most of a free day by taking on Italy for some European match practice, and they won. There was no Luis Suarez and no Diego Forlan, but the celestes still won by a single goal from Seba Fernandez.
The victory is further confirmation, if it is needed, of the magnitude of what Tabárez is achieving with this group of Uruguayan players. In front of their own fans on Friday they annihilated Chile 4-0, with an irrepressible Luis Suarez scoring all four.
"I'm only surprised that you are all surprised," Tabárez replied to journalists about the Liverpool striker’s feat. In amongst his four was a 'perfect hat-trick,' along with a classic opportunist's finish - making the most of some dire defending in the Chile area. There can be little doubt that Suárez is the top striker in national team colours in South America right now.
Battling for that mantle is Barcelona’s Leo Messi but, as has become a par for course, he is still not the player for his country that he is for his club. This is not to say he is not effective, nor central to his team’s gameplan, but he is not as explosive or dynamic as he is in Spain.
After a tepid 1-1 with Bolivia, Argentina travelled to Baranquilla where the Colombian hosts hoped to make the Argentines sweat it out – and that is exactly what they did.
Just before half-time Javier Mascherano edged Dorlan Pabón’s freekick past Sergio Romero. With Nicolás Burdisso going off injured after a terrible challenge on the impressive James Rodriguez, Sabella was facing another shock result.
Yet despite the home advantage, the climatic conditions chosen especially for the occasion and a one goal advantage, Colombia withered in the second half. Messi improved after the break, as did many of his teammates, and while he equalized, it was the second half substitute Sergio Agüero who started and completed the move for the winner.
Argentina has yet to show a coherent idea and yet to bring out the Barcelona in Messi. Sabella also has yet to find his favored system and first XI. Indeed, he is questioned over the group he knows from Estudiantes - Rodrigo Braña, Leandro Desábato, José Sosa, Clemente Rodriguez and, called up in previous matches, Marcos Rojo. Having lost to Venezuela, having drawn with Bolivia and having been a goal down to Colombia, the unrestrained celebration at the final whistle after the 2-1 win is understandable.
If Sabella feels vindicated by the win, but has to shoulder the odd problem or criticism, he will count himself lucky compared to Chile coach Borghi. Not only is the shadow of Marcelo Bielsa ever-present for the Argentine, but in the build-up to these two qualifiers Borghi dropped five important players - Valdivia, Jara, Vidal, Beausejour and Carmona – for indiscipline.
The following day the Chile Five suggested Borghi had not told the truth over the situation. Lawyers are involved, so after a 4-0 drubbing and with players and the national team coach at odds, the mood was sour in Santiago.
"‘The national team is not mine. It is everybody's," Borghi said after being asked if he is willing to call up the five again.
His comment was pointedly at the players involved, with the implication that it is up to the group as a whole to share the responsibility when it comes to the national team.
After a shambolic display in Montevideo, La Roja delivered in their must-win game against Paraguay. A sharp performance from Matías Fernández in particular helped the team to a 2-0 win, changing the mood in the camp and affording Borghi more leverage in the situation that will play out over the coming weeks.
Certainly not in need of any more backing (as he knows only too well, some may suggest), is César Farías. Oozing confidence, the Venezuela coach has led his team to take an early seven points from four matches and continue on from an impressive Copa America in which the vinotinto finished in fourth place – an historic achievement for a country where baseball is the number one sport.
Against Colombia they earned a valuable point with a late equalizer from Frank Feltscher after trailing by a goal for over an hour, and then on Tuesday took all three points from Bolivia with an Oswaldo Vizcarrondo special, heading in from a corner. What Venezuela lack in experience and technical quality they more than make up for it with diligence and organization.
While these coaches will view their quest for qualification to be moving in the right direction, the preparation over the next few months for the likes of Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru will be vital if they are to reach Brazil 2014.