Road to World Cup: Brazil, Colombia on track, Argentina wobble, Chile panic
After another thrilling night of World Cup qualification in South America, Tim Vickery recaps the state of play in CONMEBOL.
Brazil, Colombia share the spoils
Brazil may have lost their 100 percent record in World Cup qualification under coach Tite, but they had plenty of reasons to be satisfied with a 1-1 draw away to Colombia on Tuesday.
The conditions were difficult in the sweltering afternoon heat of Barranquilla. Brazil's logistics were bizarre: They'd chosen to play Thursday's home game at the other end of the continent in Porto Alegre, giving themselves a massive journey north. Brazil were without injured centre-back Miranda and suspended left-back Marcelo, and they chose to leave first-choices Casemiro and Gabriel Jesus on the bench.
Even so, they looked like a team, attacking in well-coordinated clusters of three, with Paulinho choosing the right moment to burst into the opposing box, and with occasional flashes of dazzling individual talent. Most of it came from Neymar, but there were glimpses from Willian, who lashed them into the lead on the verge of halftime with a stunning shot from the edge of the area.
Brazil's weak point is the space behind the attacking full-backs, and it was here that Colombia struck to equalise early in the second half. With James Rodriguez back in the team and Abel Aguilar linking the play from midfield, Colombia were less disjointed than of late. But they had a problem getting centre-forward Radamel Falcao into the game. His back-to-goal play is not impressive, but facing goal, he is a thrilling sight attacking crosses. And after Rodriguez played in Santiago Arias down the right, Falcao showed fine movement to get in front of his marker, Marquinhos, and glance his header inside the far post.
Chile lose more ground, Peru on the cusp
Colombia are making slow but steady progress toward Russia. Chile, meanwhile, are hurtling in the wrong direction, losing 1-0 away to Bolivia. The extreme altitude of La Paz is always difficult for visitors, and there was some spice to the game after what happened a year ago. Bolivia held Chile to a 0-0 draw in Santiago but fielded an ineligible player for the final few minutes; the match would be awarded to the Chileans on a 3-0 margin.
Without those extra points, Chile really would be struggling, because their ageing side seems to have run out of goals. This was their second consecutive game without finding the net -- the fourth such game, if the final and semifinal of the Confederations Cup are included. There is more bad news too: Alexis Sanchez picked up a yellow card, which rules him out of the next game, at home to Ecuador; and after that, Chile will complete their campaign with a trip to Brazil, who have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home and will be looking to say farewell to their public in style.
The other beneficiaries of Bolivia fielding that ineligible player were Peru, who had a 2-0 defeat transformed into a 3-0 win. It was their first away win in World Cup qualification in more than a decade, and it appears to have shown Peru how to do it. Coach Ricardo Gareca's young side have found form at the right time, putting together a little run of four wins and a draw in their past six games. Two of those have come away from home.
This latest 2-1 triumph in Ecuador is especially pleasing. Peru came through under pressure in a crunch encounter, defending staunchly and breaking at pace. There were some anxious moments at the end. After going two goals up, they conceded a goal from a penalty and went down to 10 men for the last few minutes. But they held on to give themselves a real chance of making it to the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
Peru have lost several key players for the next match: It's another crunch away tie, this one in Argentina. But they are fully entitled to celebrate this victory before getting down to the serious business of planning to take on Lionel Messi & Co.
Sampaoli, Argentina live to fight another day
By the time Argentina kicked off against Venezuela in Buenos Aires, they were down to sixth place in the table; outside the qualification slots and 90 minutes later, things had not got much better. The 1-1 draw takes the side up to fifth, with crunch games to come next month at home to Peru (the team immediately above them) and away to Ecuador, themselves still clinging to hopes of making it to Russia.
Argentina's qualification campaign is now on its third coach and its umpteenth breakdown. New man Jorge Sampaoli is hardly one to calm the nerves: At the best of times, he paces up and down his technical area as if he ran on batteries, endlessly yelling his frustration. But he is a fascinating team builder, and the early signs were that his side were much improved from the one that drew 0-0 with Uruguay on Thursday.
The introduction of Javier Mascherano to the back line increased the quality of the passing from deep: The first clear chance of the game came when his pass set up Mauro Icardi for a shot well-blocked by Wuilker Farinez, Venezuela's outstanding young goalkeeper. The return from suspension of Ever Banega gave Lionel Messi a partner in the generation of attacking ideas, while the introduction of Lautaro Acosta wide on the right also was an improvement: Using the left-footed Marcos Acuna there on Thursday ended up playing into the hands of their opponents.
Argentina started well but lost impetus when Angel Di Maria, looking so dangerous, pulled up early with a muscle injury. Acuna came on to play on his natural left flank but, for most of the time, without the same bite and threat as Di Maria. And so the key question was posed: If Venezuela could hang on, would a moment come when their attacking pace might embarrass the lack of speed in Argentina's back three?
The moment came early in the second half. A quick combination saw Sergio Corbova slide a diagonal pass to the left for John Murillo to outpace the defence and beat Sergio Romero.
Argentina responded well, levelling within five minutes. In a rare lapse, Venezuela were caught without defensive cover, and Acuna did well to force his way to the byline and turn across the face of goal. Under pressure from Icardi, left-back Rolf Feltscher turned into his own net.
The expectation was that Argentina would shake off their nerves and rebound from the shock to cruise to a win. But it never looked likely. Indeed, a second Venezuelan strike looked equally possible as they dug in deep and realised they were in sight of avoiding defeat for the first time in a World Cup qualifier on Argentine soil. The hosts, meanwhile, looked as if they were running through thick mud -- the silence and occasional groans of the Buenos Aires crowd made it obvious that the fans had lost belief.
Messi, strangely quiet in the second half, carved out a stoppage-time chance for substitute Javier Pastore, but Farinez was there to block once more, as he and his teammates did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Argentina, then, still have plenty to do.
Uruguay get the job done
Uruguay took a giant step toward Russia with a 2-1 win away to Paraguay. As expected, this was a night for the purists, but the football was always intense. Paraguay had a claim to be the better side when the Uruguayans took the lead: Debutant midfielder Federico Valverde, promoted like some of the Venezuela team from the recent U-20 World Cup, scored with a shot from outside the area that took at least one deflection on its way past Anthony Silva.
Luis Suarez, always so willing to sacrifice himself for the side, then broke down the right and poked against the bar, only for the ball to hit defender Gabriel Gomez and cross the line. Paraguay pulled one back through Angel Romero, but it was not enough. Uruguay climb to second in the table, and a win at home to Bolivia in the final round will surely be enough to book their place in a third consecutive World Cup.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.