South America’s World Cup qualifiers deliver despite conflict and coronavirus

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There were meetings and conflict and bad tempers behind the scenes in the build up to the opening two rounds of South America’s World Cup qualification campaign.

Clubs were reluctant to release players for matches played in a part of the world where the coronavirus pandemic has not been brought under control. Major League Soccer clubs were especially reluctant. Seattle Sounders, though, released striker Raul Ruidiaz for international duty with Peru, and probably wish they hadn’t. Ruidiaz tested positive for the virus, missed his country’s game against Brazil on Tuesday and will be in quarantine for a while.

The next few days are vital. Players will now go back to their club and if others test positive then the battle to get players released for next month’s FIFA dates will be much harder. And, in purely sporting terms, that would be a shame. Because — despite everything — South America’s World Cup qualifiers are capable of providing a rousing spectacle.

Neymar passes Ronaldo for second-most goals in Brazil history
Lautaro, Correa help Argentina rally past Bolivia

None of the teams had been in action since last November. There was next to no time to train. There were no fans in the stadiums to provide the atmosphere that is such a strong part of the continent’s tradition. Games featured absurdly long delays while video evidence was consulted. Despite all of that, some of what happened over the last few days deserves to live in the memory.

Like Neymar overtaking Ronaldo in Brazil’s scoring charts with a match-winning hat trick away to Peru. True, two of the goals were penalties but, in crunch moments of the match, they were superbly taken. In the only meeting so far of two teams who qualified for the last World Cup in Russia, Brazil were twice behind against opponents well coached by Ricardo Gareca, and had to dig deep to come through as 4-2 winners. Both penalties were a little soft — the second, which put Brazil 3-2 ahead with time running out, was highly debatable, and the Peruvians are entitled to feel aggrieved.

But with the introduction of Richarlison on the right wing Brazil looked as least as dangerous as they did in a 5-0 romp at home to a very poor Bolivia side last Friday. And bringing Aston Villa midfielder Douglas Luiz into the line up also looks like a good move. His range of passing is excellent — he fed Richarlison with some splendid long diagonal passes — and he keeps the side ticking over, providing defensive balance down the left, allowing exciting full-back Renan Lodi free reign to break forward. This looks like Brazil’s best response yet to the heartache of quarterfinal defeat to Belgium in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinal.

Argentina have also managed to move on from Russia 2018, where they were a shambles, with rookie coach Lionel Scaloni being a surprise hit. During 2019 first they built a team spirit, then they went about building a team structure — and both were in evidence in Tuesday’s 2-1 win away to Bolivia.

This was a huge game for the hosts. Bolivia’s chances of making it to the World Cup are almost entirely based on picking up maximum home points. They left key players out of the trip to Brazil last Friday to keep them fresh for the visit of Argentina, and seemed to be on course for a win halfway through the first half, when Alexander Chumacero was allowed to run too far, and crossed for a precise header from centre-forward Marcelo Martins Moreno. It was evidence of defensive problems that continue to haunt Scaloni’s side.

Chasing the game at the extreme altitude of La Paz is a nightmare, and there was a huge dose of fortune around the equaliser on the stroke of half-time, when a defensive clearance struck Lautaro Martinez and flew past the goalkeeper. But Argentina were well worth it, and ended up well worth their win, decided when Lionel Messi and Martinez combined to set up substitute Joaquin Correa for a rare left-footed goal.

So, after two games, Brazil and Argentina are the only teams with maximum points, while Bolivia and Venezuela are the only sides yet to pick up a single point. There is, then, a traditional look about the table at this early stage. This, though, is a campaign with a tendency to throw up some surprises along the way.

Ecuador had the advantage of the altitude of Quito when they kicked off at home to Uruguay. But, after starting the last World Cup qualification campaign like a train, they came off the track and have been in disarray both on and off the field. Their previous win in a competitive game was all the way back in November of 2016. After that, they lost the next seven qualifiers they played, and in last year’s Copa America they lost twice — including a 4-0 hammering against Uruguay — and could only draw with a Japan under-23 side.

And yet they were in control all the way through against a Uruguay team who managed to make the 4-2 scoreline look respectable with two late penalties.

Uruguay were without Manchester United’s new striker Edinson Cavani, though it was the absence of centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez that could have been more significant. The Uruguayans — with such an impressive crop of young midfielders — were somewhat disappointing in last Thursday’s 2-1 win at home to Chile, especially in the second-half. It seemed that coach Oscar Washington Tabarez believed that he had made a mistake by bringing in his old stand-by Sebastian Coates to partner the veteran Diego Godin in the heart of the defence. As a pair they are surely too slow. And so in came Ronald Araujo of Barcelona for this game and, once again, the defence was leaking. They could have conceded more than four.

Tabarez now has some food for thought, and will surely be brooding on the balance of his side. When big teams get in trouble, the South American qualifiers can be a gruelling campaign. Brazil, for example, flirted with disaster on the road to 2002, which they ended up winning. Argentina lived dangerously in 2010 and 2018. The big two have made solid starts this time. Uruguay, though, might be looking over their shoulder. Statistically at least, they were the best South American side in two of the last three World Cups, and they would seem to have plenty of talent at their disposal this time. But things could get more difficult before they become easier. Next month the Uruguayans are away to unbeaten Colombia, and then at home to Brazil.

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