MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifiers from South America.
Colombia v Ecuador | Tuesday 21.30
Colombia moved to within a point of the top-four in the South American section of World Cup qualifying thanks to a 3-2 success in Bolivia on Thursday night. But it was by no means a comfortable or clear-cut victory.
Jose Pekerman’s men were clinical in the first-half, scoring twice through James Rodriguez and Carlos Bacca when under the cosh. But Los Cafeteros wilted in the high altitude of La Paz and were unable to stop Bolivia roaring back into the game in the second 45 minutes.
Visiting goalkeeper David Ospina was by far the busiest but in the end it was the impact of young starlet Marlos Moreno from the bench that proved decisive. Moreno, earning rave reviews in South America this season, was denied a winner himself before setting up fellow substitute Edwin Cardona in stoppage-time as Colombia undeservedly pinched maximum points.
It’s been a similar tale throughout qualifying. Having opened with a flattering 2-0 success over Peru as hosts, Los Cafeteros were flattened 3-0 in Uruguay and edged out 1-0 by Argentina in Barranquilla. Colombia were at their best in a 1-1 draw at Chile (W2-D1-L2).
With form and fitness deserting the bulk of Pekerman’s squad, a serious lack of cohesion and numerous disjointed displays since their 2014 World Cup exploits, the Colombian boss brought in 12 players who were not called up for the first few rounds, handing four their debuts on Thursday.
Once again, the exploits of James, Bacca and Juan Cuadrado came up trumps but Colombia looked shorn of experience and know-how at the back and that could be a troublesome combination when coming up against the current league leaders Ecuador here in Barranquilla.
La Tri dropped their first points on the road to Russia when being held 2-2 at home to Paraguay in Quito. Head coach Gustavo Quinteros admitted his side weren’t at their best, lacking cohesion in defence and attack but it’s true too that Ecuador should have been out of sight by half-time.
Enner Valencia had given the hosts the lead but two goals from Dario Lezcano – one in each half – meant La Tri required Angel Mena’s strike in added time to preserve their unbeaten record. Christian Noboa had hit the woodwork on three occasions for Ecuador as they attempted to go five from five.
The visitors had won just three away qualifiers in 15 years coming into this campaign but back-to-back triumphs in Argentina and Venezuela has brought confidence to Quinteros’ group and they’ll fancy their chances against the current Colombian crop, with La Tri scoring at least twice in all five of their qualifiers thus far.
Ecuador have scored in 12 of their past 14 competitive fixtures and I fancy them to add to that tally here. But with nine of those matches involving goals for both sides, and Colombia’s strength in their offence, I’ll happily snap up Both Teams To Score at even-money with Ladbrokes.
Uruguay v Peru | Wednesday 00.00
New FIFA president Gianni Infantino will be present at the Estadio Centenario as Uruguay look to cement their place in the top-four with a home win over struggling Peru.
La Celeste picked up a well-earned point at Brazil on Friday night having fallen 2-0 behind in Recife. Boss Oscar Tabarez was without three of his first-choice back four – centre-halves Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez plus right-back Maxi Pereira – but after switching from 4-4-2 to 4-1-4-1 at the interval, Uruguay clicked back into gear.
Tabarez’s troops were being exposed down the left-hand side but Edinson Cavani’s selfless work rate eliminated those problems whilst Luis Suarez – back in the sky blue jersey for the first time since the World Cup – posed plenty of problems on the shoulder of the attack.
Pereira is back in the fold for this fixture and Uruguay should be more than capable of justifying their short pre-match prices by blowing Peru away in Montevideo. Since 2011, La Celeste have W6-D3-L0 when hosting World Cup qualifiers and the 23/20 (Bet365) available for Uruguay to clear the -1.5 Asian Handicap hurdle is advised.
Peru’s qualification hopes are looking remote after taking just four points from their first five fixtures and the lowly visitors are without key players Jefferson Farfan, Carlos Zambrano, Juan Manuel Vargas and Josepmar Ballon here.
La Blanquirroja needed a late equaliser from substitute Raul Ruidiaz when welcoming Venezuela to Lima on Thursday night and Ricardo Gareca’s travellers have a wretched away record to overcome.
Across the last 11 years, Peru have W0-D1-L22 on their World Cup qualifying travels – 16 of those 22 defeats were by a margin of at least two goals with their last two visits to Uruguay ending in an aggregate loss of 2-10.
Argentina v Bolivia | Thursday 00.30
On paper, Argentina’s 2-1 success in Chile on Thursday night should be cause for celebration. La Albiceleste put their qualification hopes back on track and gained a smidgen of revenge on the nation that beat them in the Copa America final last in July, in the same stadium.
But many supporters were left disappointed by Tata Martino’s team’s inability to perform for 90 minutes, the head coach’s failure to get the best out of Lionel Messi and a rather defensive second-half display when Argentina had the opportunity to cut loose.
Chile were missing Arturo Vidal, Charles Aranguiz, Jorge Valdivia and Eduardo Vargas and two first-half injuries further debilitated the hosts. La Albiceleste took advantage to turnaround a 1-0 deficit in their 2-1 triumph but once again they looked incredibly flimsy and timid.
Messi failed to have a shot for the first time in 117 matches for club and country and Sergio Aguero endured a difficult evening. Martino’s quire rightly taking the blame for both players’ lack of influence as Argentina failed to take a firm hold on possession in a wasteful counter-attacking approach.
This midweek they travel to Cordoba and there are concerns over the state of the pitch after an Iron Maiden concert left the surface looking more suitable for beach football. And Martino will have centre-halves Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori suspended.
La Albiceleste’s serious defensive shortcomings come to the fore now as seriously out-of-form and painfully slow Martin Demichelis is set to be partnered by 33-year-old utility man, Javier Pinola, who last played for La Albiceleste in 2007. For that reason alone, I’m happy to swerve any ‘to nil’ based bets.
Gonzalo Higuain is also likely to return to the XI and the in-form Napoli man looks a bet at 4/7 to score at anytime with William Hill. He’s hit 29 goals in 30 Serie A marches this term and has plenty to prove in the international jersey following high-profile misses in the World Cup final and the Copa America final.
But Higuain has notched 25 goals from his 54 Argentina appearances and he looks a decent proposition in what should be a comfortable home success.
Martino’s men have recorded consecutive away wins at Colombia and Chile and it’s true too, Bolivia pose much less of a threat when not playing at the extreme altitude of La Paz.
Yes, La Verde deserved something from their encounter with Colombia on Thursday but their road record this millennium in World Cup qualifiers reads W0-D5-L32 – losing by at least two goals on 22 occasions and shipping three or more goals in 19 matches.
It should be straightforward for Argentina.
Venezuela v Chile | Thursday 00.30
The euphoria of Chile’s maiden Copa America title has long since waned and been replaced by uncertainty following the departure of head coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Antonio Pizzi is the new man in charge but the Argentinian has been forced to deal with a long list of key injuries as La Roja bid to end a winless run of three (W0-D1-L2) following back-to-back victories to kick-off their campaign.
Arturo Vidal, Charles Aranguiz, Jorge Valdivia and Eduardo Vargas were already absentees but Mati Fernandez and Marcelo Diaz failed to finish the first-half against Argentina, leaving Pizzi without his four crucial midfield components for the trip to Venezuela.
The unheralded work of Aranguiz and Diaz is bound to have an adverse effect on the visitors’ balance and defensive efforts whilst goalkeeper and captain Claudio Bravo is suspended. With Alexis Sanchez lacking the bite, pace and support of Vargas and Vidal in the attacking third, Mauricio Pinilla must start to ease the burden on the Arsenal hitman.
With so many questions and unavailable players surrounding La Roja, it’s impossible to support them at the pre-match quotes. Instead, Both Teams To Score at 23/20 (Boylesports) appeals.
Venezuela have been in off-field crisis for some time now but were minutes away from pulling off a shock in Peru on Thursday night, only to concede a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw, a result that does neither country’s hopes any real favours.
Romulo Otero and Mikel Villanueva had struck in either half, the former from the spot, to fire La Vinotinto into a commanding position, but they were unable to finish the job to claim their first victory in the Peruvian capital in eight attempts – instead having to settle for a first point there since 2004.
The hosts at least stopped the rot of four successive qualifying defeats that have torpedoed any hope of Russia 2018. However, head coach Noel Sanvicente – the nation’s most successful club boss – has introduced an exciting and attacking approach to the Vinotinto.
Venezuela’s squad isn’t best suited to a high tempo and pressing style but in glimpses and flashes, Sanvicente’s team can look like world-beaters, as well as the Dog and Duck. The Vinotinto gave a great account of themselves in Lima with a rather experimental squad but once more, their offence flourished.
Salomon Rondon’s lacked service at times and has only two goals in two years for the national team but Juanpi and Romulu Otero opened up the Peruvians on numerous occasions.
Since being silenced by Paraguay in their opener, Venezuela have scored in each of their last four as well as in six of their most recent eight competitive games, so are more than capable of adding to that tally.
However, serious questions remain over their physicality to cope with Sanvicente’s system and horrible individual errors continue to contribute to their sloppy defence. The hosts have kept a solitary shutout in meaningful matches in three years with five of their last six featuring BTTS.
Paraguay v Brazil | Thursday 01.45
Former Oxford United manager Ramon Diaz deserves credit for the work he’s doing in charge of Paraguay.
La Albirroja reached the Copa America semi-finals last summer, emerging from a group involving both Argentina and Uruguay – drawing with both – and now Diaz’s men are sitting pretty in fourth during World Cup qualification thanks to W2-D2-L1 from their first five.
On Thursday night, Paraguay picked up an important point at table-toppers Ecuador (2-2) thanks to two goals from Ingolstadt forward Dario Lezcano. The 25-year-old is fast establishing himself as Paraguay’s designated goal-getter having scored three times despite only making his debut against Argentina in October.
Back in Asuncion, La Albirroja are now looking forward to pitting their wits against Brazil and playing up to their bogeymen tag once more. The duo have met on nine occasions in the past 14 years and Paraguay have W3-D4-L2, including knocking the Samba Boys out of the past two Copa Americas on penalties.
Following a disastrous campaign in qualifying for World Cup 2014, Diaz is rebuilding the squad and the supporters’ trust. La Albirroja still won’t thrill – although the possible starts of Juan Iturbe and Roque Santa Cruz here could bolster their forward options – but they’re a tough team to out-battle.
Brazil have only managed four wins in 11 visits to Asuncion since 1968 and travel with suspended captain Neymar. The Barcelona forward has collected more bookings than goals for his country since 2015 and boss Dunga is likely to deploy Ricardo Oliveira as a target man for Willian and Douglas Costa in his absence.
But the Selecao’s issues aren’t in attack where the Samba Boys have scored nine in five – only Ecuador and Uruguay have netted more. It’s at the back where Brazil’s problems are beginning to mount.
Dunga’s men blew a 2-0 lead at home to Uruguay on Friday night with David Luiz arguably to blame for both. The PSG defender is suspended for this clash and with Thiago Silva shafted since the World Cup, it looks like Gil, who recently joined Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng, will join Miranda at centre-half.
Brazil have shipped six goals in their five qualifiers with the Selecao only keeping their sheets clean when welcoming terrible travellers Peru (3-0) – even rock-bottom Venezuela scored against the canary yellows.
So without Neymar, a far from reliable backline and a poor record against the Paraguayans, can you trust Dunga’s charges here? I can’t.
Dunga was in charge for their Copa America exit to Paraguay last summer as well as their 2-0 defeat in Asuncion back in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. A repeat reverse may not be on the cards but I’d much rather support the hosts at 8/11 (Bet365) in the Double Chance market than Brazil.
Colombia v Ecuador – Both Teams To Score (1/1 Ladbrokes)
Uruguay v Peru – Uruguay -1.5 Asian Handicap (23/20 Bet365)
Argentina v Bolivia – Gonzalo Higuain to score at anytime (4/7 William Hill)
Venezuela v Chile – Both Teams To Score (23/30 Boylesports)
Paraguay v Brazil – Paraguay double chance (8/11 Bet365)
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