Summer is in full swing now and international soccer is the subject of day throughout the world of soccer. While the European Championships rage on in the Eastern Hemisphere, the South American World Cup Qualifiers for Brazil 2014 just went through its 5th and 6th match days and left some impressions as to where the South American contenders and pretenders stand in their quest to reach the world’s most prestigious soccer tournament.
We’ll start with the hosts, Brazil. Although the Samba Boys do not need to qualify and are not even involved in the CONMEBOL qualification process this time around by virtue of being the tournament hosts, they are taking advantage of their time by playing friendly matches to keep in form and try out different players. Most recently, Brazil took on Argentina in a highly-publicized friendly which was televised on Gol TV. Anyone who saw that match got the kind of show you would expect from a Brazil vs. Argentina match. It was end to end action which was highlighted by 7 goals being scored en route to a 4-3 Argentina win. The match brought Brazil’s opportunistic offense back into the limelight and also revealed some of the problems and uncertainty in Brazil’s defense.
The most glaring concern is that Brazil does not seem to have a reliable partner for Thiago Silva in central defense. While Marcelo has been shining at left-back and has put forth some of the better performances on the field for Brazil in recent outings, his main impact has been going forward down the wing and playing in tandem with Neymar going forward, much in the same fashion that Dani Alves and Lionel Messi have done with Barcelona. Hulk is also putting forth some good performances for the national side and his big physique and power-forward style appears to be the perfect offensive complement to Neymar’s slight build and play built on speed and shiftiness. However, the central forward position and central midfield has been a recent issue for Brazil. In the end, Brazil still appears to be one of the top 3 teams in South America but there is good reason for concern in the side with the appearance that the side seems to be nearly all flash on the wings with Neymar, Hulk, Marcelo and Dani Alves being the obvious stand-outs but the middle of the field seems to be filled with questions.
Enough about Brazil though! Let’s to the teams who are actually competing in the CONMEBOL qualifiers.
Argentina look to have finally hit their stride after a slow start to their World Cup Qualification, the Albiceleste have steamrolled through opposing defenses in their last couple of matches to the tune of 8 goals scored over the last 180 minutes against Ecuador and Brazil. The most glaring aspect of their game that has been corrected is that they seem to have finally figured out a way to get Lionel Messi heavily involved in the offense and it is paying dividends. The reigning World Player of the Year has scored 4 goals in the last 2 matches with his home country and has assisted on a number of others. Alejandro Sabella seems to have finally figured out what Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista could not and by doing so, has put Argentina back into the discussion as one of the best national sides, not just in South America, but in the world. The results show in the current CONMEBOL standings where Argentina currently sits in 3rd place on 10 points, just 2 back of the leaders, Chile who have one more game played than the Albiceleste.
Now, let’s make this perfectly clear. While Brazil and Argentina are the most well-known and well-respected sides in South America, the best national side in my opinion and the current champion of the region is Uruguay. After a 4th place finish at the World Cup in 2010 and a Copa America Championship last summer, the Celeste have not slowed down one bit. They have yet to lose in their 5 qualifying matches and remain the only undefeated side in the qualification process. Luis Suarez has been very good for his club side, Liverpool, in England but he has looked about as unstoppable as a single player can in his national team kit. Even though he didn’t score in Uruguay’s last couple of matches, he has set up a few of their opportunities and still leads the qualifiers in scoring with 5 goals. Diego Forlan is a different person with his national side from his life as a club player. Forlan seemingly fell off the map with Internazionale this past season in Italy but when he puts on that Uruguayan jersey, he looks like he is still every bit the player he was at the 2010 World Cup when he took home the MVP of the tournament. Throw in Edinson Cavani and its easy to see why the Celeste average nearly 3 goals a match. Uruguay currently sports the best goal differential in CONMEBOL and for good reason. Their defense has been just as impressive as their offense and they still look like the class of the continent at the moment.
Say what you want but for all the talk about Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, the fact of the matter is that when you look at the CONMEBOL qualifying table right now, you’ll find Chile at the top of the standings. Kamakaze soccer is alive and well for La Roja despite the departure of World Cup coach, Marcelo Bielsa to Athletic Bilbao last summer. Chile continues to send wave after wave of attack at the opposition’s net with seemingly no regard for the consequences in defense and the results seem to defy the conventional wisdom that stopping the other team from scoring is important. Who needs defense? Not Chile! Claudio Borghi’s side has given up the second most goals of anyone in the qualifiers and it doesn’t matter. They’re still perched at the top of the table, sporting a front five that seems like it could score at any moment in any match.
After the top 3 in the CONMEBOL table, things look very uncertain with Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia all scrambling for the last automatic qualification spot. All 3 sides have been extremely inconsistent thus far in qualification.
Ecuador, who currently sit in 4th place, has looked like two different sides. La-Tri got absolutely destroyed against Argentina, looking horrible in both offense and defense and then miraculously turned it all around in their next outing against Colombia by winning 1-0 while looking like a defensive force against the likes of Dorlan Pabon and Radamel Falcao.
Colombia came into the 5th round of play undefeated in the qualifiers and looked to be getting ready to cement their place in the top 3 places in the table but in their last couple of matches against Peru and Ecuador, the Cafeteros have laid a complete egg under new manager, Jose Pekerman as their offense has seemingly forsaken them and their defense appears to be a lock to make one huge blunder per match. As a result, Colombia has fallen out of the qualification positions, to 6th place and wouldn’t even be in line to play the qualifier against the 4th place CONMEBOL side at the moment.
Venezuela currently holds the 5th spot which is the playoff spot for CONMEBOL. They’ve left supporters scratching their head in last few months as well though. After drawing 1-1 with Uruguay back in February, Venezuela was beginning to give the impression that they may have turned the corner as a national team and were ready to compete with the big dogs of the continent. Well, we jumped the gun there. The Vinotinto got hammered by Chile in Round 6 and never really appeared in the match.
Then there are the sides that seem to be hopeless at this point. Admittedly, we expected Bolivia and Peru to be down at the bottom but no one expected to find Paraguay second from the bottom of the qualification table at this point having come off a runner-up finish in the Copa America. The Guaranies had a bye in Round 5 and spent the better part of a month in La Paz preparing to take on Bolivia in the high altitude. There’s no other way to say it. Paraguay fell flat on its face against what many consider to be worst national side the continent has to offer, leading many to question the merit of Francisco Arce as the team’s manager which ultimately cost him his job after a 3-1 defeat to La Verde.
Bolivia don’t deserve to play at the World Cup. They simply don’t have the talent. The only thing really worth mentioning is that they appear to have the single greatest home field advantage of any team in any sport in the world. Again, Paraguay spent almost a month trying to get used to the altitude of La Paz heading into Round 6 and it just didn’t matter. The Guaranies were all gassed 5 minutes into the second half and it was easy pickings at that point for Bolivia, which is the only way I expect them to get any points in qualification at all. Talent wise, they are easily the worst team in the confederation but at home, they are a little scary. Need a better example? Look up their 6-1 demolition of Argentina from April of 2009. Guarantee you Argentine fans haven’t forgotten that one!
Then there’s Peru. What a mess! Their league is in shambles, their coach doesn’t like the players he has to choose from and on top of that, they can’t stay healthy. They’re not going to the World Cup in 2014. What they should be concentrating on is Russia 2018 and trying not to finish last in qualifying. That national team needs an overhaul like no other and some luck wouldn’t hurt either.
They way it looks right now, you can pretty much pencil in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile to join Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. The real race looks like it will be between Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela for the 4th and 5th spots at the moment although I can see Paraguay getting back into it with some better direction. You can forget about Peru and Bolivia though. They’re not going anywhere but back to the drawing board.