Matthew Hawkins - The 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification group stage is coming to a dramatic conclusion this weekend. Six points separate thi
Matthew Hawkins –
The 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification group stage is coming to a dramatic conclusion this weekend. Six points separate third-place Colombia and eighth-place Ecuador.
Brazil have rediscovered their samba rhythm under the direction of Tite and are the only team qualified from the region. Uruguay, sitting in second, needs just two points and is facing already eliminated Venezuela and Bolivia in its final two matches of CONMEBOL qualification. Thus all the focus is on what happens to Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay.
Consistency has been a major issue in this 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification group stage. Organized counter-attacking displays by the region’s mid-ranked teams has frustrated and stifled the offensive abilities of the region’s superstar forwards, who have at times looked uncomfortable with the physicality of the matches. While space has been hard to come by, teams like Argentina and Chile have also demonstrated a lack of concentration, which has made them particularly vulnerable. And as always, off the field intrigue has disrupted matches. Bolivia lost four points after fielding the ineligible Nelson Cabrera against Peru and Chile. Argentina is on its third manager with Jorge Sampaoli taking the reins in April of this year.
Given how the qualifiers have gone thus far, predicting results is a fools game. Given the significance, Futbolcidade advises a three screen setup for Thursday’s matches. Regardless of the results, on Wednesday there will be disappointment and relief on the continent after the final stage of 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification.
2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL Qualification Previews
Bolivia vs Brazil – Time: 16:00 UTC−4Location: Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz
The most mundane and insignificant match of this weekends 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification matches, both Bolivia and Brazil have decided their fates. Bolivia will be playing for pride, while Brazil use the match to work on tactics and formations.
Tite has called a strong squad. This is a comfortable Brazil, at ease and confident with itself. The struggle for Tite will be to find the correct balance. Since qualifying, Brazil has arguably been at times too laid back, sending audiences and players alike into a boredom-inspired slumber. It’s a paradox for Brazil who needs to be both aggressive and relaxed over the complete ‘90 to truly shine.
The difference for this Brazil has been the strong performance of its midfield. Willian, Paulinho, Fernandinho, Coutinho, Renato Augusto and Casemiro have all had quality performances at some point over qualifying. Brazil’s consistent depth has lifted some responsibility from Neymar, giving him much needed creative space. Gabriel Jesus will likely be the break-out talent for Thursday’s match.
Bolivia is coming off a hard-fought 1-0 victory over arch-enemies Chile. Back in March, they also managed to defeat Argentina at home 2-nil. A very similar Bolivia-based team will attempt to add Brazil to their trophy wall of ‘big teams’ before putting a close on this World Cup cycle. Bolivia can infamously count on the altitude of La Paz’s Estadio Hernando Siles in their efforts against Brazil. The Strongest’s Alejandro Chumacero, the Andean Schweinsteiger, is his country’s most exciting and talented player and Juan Carlos Arce will relish in the opportunity to add to his tally of four goals scored in La Paz. Bolivia should be expected to play a conservative counter-attacking match, looking for the rare chance to sneak the ball into the net, while making their opponents work to find space.
Venezuela vs Uruguay – Time: 17:00 UTC−4 Location: Estadio Polideportivo de Pueblo Nuevo, San Cristóbal
Venezuela vs Uruguay is the other match of lesser significance but is notable for the presence of two U-20 stars. Venezuela has only one win in 16 matches, while Uruguay has managed to find itself slightly above the pack with 27 points. While mathematically Uruguay could be eliminated by next Tuesday, it is highly unlikely. A win will see Uruguay secure a spot in Russia without having to face its customary play-off match.
Edinson Cavani is the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals, and Luis Suárez has been pivotal as always. El Maestro Óscar Tabárez, in what will be his last World Cup campaign, will be arguably guiding a complete Uruguayan side under his tenure. In the well-fought 2-1 victory over Paraguay, Tabárez introduced 19-year old Federico Valverde, now at Deportivo La Coruña.
Valverde brought energy and creativity into the midfield, an area of the pitch that Uruguay has often been found lacking. Valverde will be a crucial connection in Uruguay’s attacking transition, which has relied on Cavani or Suárez to drop deep to support. Behind South America’s most dangerous duo, Uruguay can also boast one of the top defensive pairings in the world: Diego Godín and José Giménez. Along with the absence of a creative midfielder, Uruguay’s depth has also been an issue. Tabárez’s teams excel, however, because of his signature blend of pragmatic play and brute force.
Venezuela is not without its intrigue. This cycle has been a huge disappointment for Venezuela, which was looking to build on its near misses of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Veterans have failed to provide much success at home and Venezuela is now turning to a new generation of players. The U-20 team finished runner-up this past summer at the 2017 World Cup. That team was guided by the skilful hands of Wuilker Faríñez, South America’s next big thing. Faríñez who has been starting for Caracas FC since 2015 will move to Colombian side Millionarios in January, a month before his 20th birthday. At the beginning of the year, many teams were counting on Venezuela to provide 3-points. Faríñez has devastated those plans, making spectacular saves to keep both a 0-0 draw to Colombia at home and a 1-1 draw against a very frustrated Argentina in Buenos Aires. Faríñez has already established himself as the #1 for the Vinotintos.
Argentina vs Peru – Time: 20:30 UTC−3 Location: Estadio Bombonera, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Impossible for international journalists to imagine, but whispered as what the national team might deserve, Argentina may not make it to the 2018 World Cup. It would be a terrible blow to Lionel Messi who contemplated retiring after finishing runners-up in the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa América, and the 2016 Copa Centenario. He must feel cursed in the Albiceleste jersey, but the reality is despite having the greatest offensive depth in the world, Argentina has not been well served by its forwards. Argentina has been too often static and sterile. The whole world is watching Messi, and that includes both his opposition defenders and his teammates.
Some had blamed fired manager Eduardo Bauza. The Asociación del Fútbol Argentino, flush with television money, moved last April to replace the conservative-minded Bauza with Jorge Sampaoli. Goals were expected to come through Sampaoli’s signature high-tempo press. But the lack of movement off the ball by Messi’s teammates continues to be a major issue. Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi finally welcomed to the national team, have failed thus far to introduce the expected change. Given the names that appear on paper, everyone should be dumbfounded by the inability of Argentina to resolve its problems. If there has been one positive, it is that Argentina has been as equally miserly in defence as it has been in its attack. And Argentina will have to be wary.
Peru is the dark-horse of 2017 and is unbeaten with three wins and a draw this year in this year’s 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification stage. The contrast between Peru and Argentina is great. Whereas Argentina is filled with highly-paid players at the best teams in Europe, Peru is composed of guys spread out across mediocre teams in second-tier leagues. It has been Peru’s collective effort, against Argentina’s egotistical failures, which has lifted up the national program. Peru now finds itself in fourth, tied on points and goal difference with Argentina but ahead with 26 goals scored to Argentina’s pitiful 16. Ricardo Gareca has restored some glory to what had been a beleaguered Peru, transforming the team into a defensively well-organised counter-attacking force. Talisman forward Paolo Guerrero is a serious threat, but big goals have also come from Edison Flores who is on a three-match scoring streak.
There is an x-factor in this match. Sampaoli suggested Argentina’s lacklustre performance against Venezuela was due to the atmosphere of the Estadio Monumental. AFA unwilling to admit that high ticket prices and disconnected players are the main factors contributing to quiet stadiums moved the match across town to Boca Junior’s iconic Bombonera stadium. Despite being less than suitable for international games, it is hoped the relocation will help to draw a more intimidating and engaged crowd. Questions, however, have been raised about AFA’s political motivations for the decision and how the atmosphere will be created. Boca President Daniel Angelici is widely known to be the power behind the curtain in AFA. Boca’s infamous barra brava La Doce received at least 2000 tickets to distribute to members and resell. Rumours that the barra secured, even more, tickets, which have reappeared on resale websites with highly inflated ticket prices has many Argentinians crying foul.
Ever the superstitious country, the last time Argentina played a competitive match at Boca’s stadium was against Peru in 1969. The 2-2 draw eliminated Argentina from the Mexico 1970 qualifiers. Tensions are high. Given the political machinations within AFA and the poor performances by players, some Argentinians have even quietly suggested that they would rather see the team eliminated.
Chile v Ecuador – Time: 20:30 UTC−3 Location: Estadio Monumental David Arellano, Santiago, Chile
Chile and Ecuador are two teams on relative downward slides in this 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification campaign. Ecuador is on the verge of elimination; their fate lies in the hands of the other teams. Chile is surprisingly also facing an uphill battle. Chile is in a must-win situation against Ecuador, as their final match away to Brazil looms.
Chile was disappointed to return from Russia without the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup trophy. The loss to the youthful German side revealed the problem with Chile’s golden generation. Since winning the Copa Centenario in 2016, Chile has collectively struggled to maintain its signature high octane press over the full 90 minutes. Even Chile’s last emphatic 3-1 win over Uruguay in November 2016 featured a lethargic first half, which had La Roja trailing 1-0. Chile, however, has a wealth of experience mainly in its midfield, with many players peaking in their professional careers.
Chile’s limited goal-scoring options, however, has become an issue. There is a reliance on Alexis Sanchéz and Arturo Vidal to work the edge of the box. Eduardo Vargas has struggled over the past year as a striker, and Antonio Pizzi has been unable to inspire a youthful replacement to take centre stage. On this squad, Pizzi has opted to include Mauricio Pinilla, Esteban Paredes and Edson Puch, leaving out Ángelo Sagal and the once again injured Nicolás Castillo.
Ecuador had a strong start to this qualifying round with four straight wins. Problems, however, soon started to emerge for El Tri. Ecuador’s last real success was a 3-0 victory over Chile on matchday 9. Since then, Ecuador has only accumulated four points in seven matches. With several key players such as midfielder Cristian Noboa and central defenders Arturo Mina and Luis Caicedo losing form, Ecuador has lost core stability. This September manager Gustavo Quinteros was replaced, and top goal-scorer Felipe Caicedo retired from international football in protest. Ecuador remains a highly athletic and physical team, but interim manager Jorge Célico has assembled a relatively inexperienced squad for the final two matches. La Tri will have to rely on Antonio Valencia and Enner Valencia for their attack, but with World Cup qualifying almost entirely outside of their grasp, Ecuador may already be thinking about 2022.
Colombia vs Paraguay – Time: 18:30 UTC−5 – Location: Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, Barranquilla, Colombia
Colombia is another enigma of 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification. Boasting an incredible roster of talent that had a strong performance as a young team in 2014, Colombia was expected to have a relatively easy qualification route this time around. Colombia has not necessarily been playing poorly, but they have failed to convert chances in the decisive moments of matches. They have struggled to finish off close rivals while falling behind to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay on the road.
Colombia expresses a common theme amongst the expected powerhouses of South America. Failing to score on elaborate attempts to construct goals has generated frustration for the Cafeteros, which over a match has caused desperation and a lack of creativity. In part, the qualifiers have been characterised by opponents who have collapsed their defences creating well-organised walls across the top of the box. Colombia has also been shown to be vulnerable to fast counter-attacks. Colombia will need Falcao to translate his rediscovered lethal instincts to find angled balls space behind Paraguay’s defence. Otherwise, expect to see James make long-range attempts out of frustration. Colombia shall want the three points as they cannot guarantee a result in their final match away to resurgent Peru.
Paraguay are hungry, and that makes them unpredictable. With a final match against Venezuela at home, they do have some hope to finish in the play-off position. A disappointing loss at home to Uruguay last month was the best 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification match: a battle. And Paraguay is built to fight. Unfortunately, Paraguay will be without Gremio striker Lucas Barrios who was injured only a few days ago. Atlanta United star and Paraguay’s creative enganche Miguel Almirón is also absent due to injury. 34-year old veteran Óscar Cardozo was brought into replacing Barrios. With Paraguay’s offence thus diminished Corinthians forward Ángel Romero will have to be stellar while Víctor Cáceres, who was dominant in Chile at the end of August, and Cristian Riveros will be tasked with disrupting Colombia’s midfield.
Because of 2018 FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL qualification simultaneous late-evening scheduling of the three crucial matches, Colombia will not be able to utilise the tiring effects of Barranquilla’s sweltering humidity. Hopefully, the match will be an uncharacteristically open affair with both teams probing for goals.
Matt Hawkins has a PhD in Anthropology at the Carleton University, Ottawa. His research covered the intersections of football and politics in Argentina. His dissertation focuses on the Return to Boedo campaign by supporters of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. He infrequently writes on supporter culture for stonymondayriot.com and can be followed on Twitter @mhawkin2