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 By Tim Vickery

Brazil go second while Messi-less Argentina are well held by Venezuela

With eight rounds completed, Uruguay are the leaders of South America's World Cup qualification campaign, a point clear of Brazil and Argentina.

There is a traditional look, then, to the qualification table, with the top three places taken by the sides who between them share nine World Cup wins.

But part of the story of a fascinating night's action went the other way, stressing just how tight and well balanced things have now become in a gripping campaign. Because this was the night when Argentina came close to a humiliating defeat at the hands of Venezuela.

At opposite ends of the continent, these countries have opposing football traditions. Argentina are the traditional power, and Venezuela are the newcomers. In the 2014 qualifiers, Venezuela managed a 1-0 home win against Argentina, with the goal scrambled home from a corner. Tuesday's match in Merida finished 2-2 -- but there were moments when it seemed that Argentina were heading for humiliation.

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The sides met in Boston in the recent Copa America Centenario. Argentina won 4-1, but the Venezuelans came away with considerable credit and a lesson learned. They took the field with the aim of packing their midfield to reduce Lionel Messi's space. Messi carved them apart anyway, and withdrawing Josef Martinez to wide midfield was not a success.

After half an hour, losing 2-0, they put him back up front, reverting to their usual 4-4-2 and allowing the pace of Martinez to dovetail with the strength of centre-forward Jose Salomon Rondon. For 15 minutes, they had Argentina on the ropes, and had they not missed a penalty on the stroke of half-time, the game might have been closer.

On Tuesday, Messi was missing after sustaining an injury last Thursday against Uruguay. The balance of forces was very different. True, Javier Mascherano was there to protect the space in front of the visiting defence -- but Venezuela had a plan to play him out of the game. They looked to move the ball forward quickly, playing over Mascherano and betting on the strength of Rondon and the speed of Martinez against the Argentina centre-backs, and it worked.

Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori had a thoroughly uncomfortable evening, full of individual lapses, not working collectively. It could have cost Argentina a third goal. Had it done so, there may well have been no way back. But despite the absences of Messi, Sergio Aguero and Pablo Dybala, coach Edgardo Bauza had enough firepower at his disposal to get his side back on level terms. The long term point remains, though: The defensive unit could do with an overhaul.

Even so, only two of the continent's 10 teams did better than Argentina over the two recent rounds. One, perhaps surprisingly, was Bolivia, who also picked up four points from a win and a draw, but did it with a better goal difference than the Argentines.

Miranda & Neymar
Miranda and Neymar both found the net in Brazil's hard-fought victory over Colombia.

The 2018 World cup still looks a long way off for the Bolivians, but morale has certainly been boosted by the arrival of new coach Angel Guillermo Hoyos. It will be boosted still further if they manage to get something from their next match, when they visit Brazil -- the only team to have won both games over the last few days. 

The regime of coach Tite could hardly have got off to a better start. In a way, the home game against Colombia was even trickier than the trip to altitude to face Ecuador last Thursday. On that occasion, Brazil were happy at 0-0, and overjoyed when they broke away to win the game 3-0 in the last few minutes. At home to Colombia, though, they would be expected to take the initiative in the game, where their lack of time on the training ground was always likely to be exposed.

Taking the lead from a second-minute corner may not have done Brazil any favours. No sooner had the game started than they had a lead to protect. Colombia were allowed to feel their way into the fixture, and equalised from a set piece of their own. Now came the true test: Could Brazil stay patient? Or might they play into the hands of an opponent happy to break at pace on the counter-attack?

It was a game Brazil could have lost. Colombia carried a threat at a time when Brazil had gone a little flat. There were attempts to play their way through the Colombian defence, with some clever diagonal passes for forward runs of midfielders Paulinho and Renato Augusto. But the rhythm of the passing was not slick enough to pull the Colombian defence around and create space -- until the moment when the game was won some 17 minutes from time.

The Colombian defence was pierced, and right-back John Stefan Medina had to cover infield to deal with Gabriel Jesus. His tackle fell to Philippe Coutinho, who played a quick, clever pass to Neymar on the left edge of the penalty area where, with Medina having been drawn inside, he had a clear shot at goal. Neymar's second half had been a hit and miss affair, but he made no mistake now, striking low into the far corner and winning the game for his side.

Brazil, then, chalked up two victories while all of their rivals dropped points. Down in sixth place last week, they are now up in second.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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