MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Thursday night’s World Cup qualifiers from South America.
Bolivia v Peru | Thursday 21.00
It’s 68 days since the Copa America concluded in New Jersey but Bolivia had long since packed their bags following a pointless return from three fixtures against Argentina, Chile and Panama.
It was a deeply disappointing tournament for Bolivian supporters. La Verde had reached the Copa quarter-finals for the first time since 1997 just 12 months earlier but it had been a downward spiral since.
In fact, the shambolic performance could probably have been predicted considering what has happened to the national side during the year. Head coach Mauricio Soria was sacked, refused to be reinstated, before Julio Cesar Baldivieso was hired.
The fiery Baldivieso promptly fell out with key players and Bolivia made a hash of their opening World Cup qualifiers – fighting back to hold Colombia 2-2 at home, the side went down to a late goal. It’s not an exaggeration to say hopes were all but extinguished that night.
Baldivieso continued in his position into the summer but La Verde were awful. Desperately limited and only offering a threat from set-pieces, Bolivia’s porous defence was a recipe for disaster and the FA decided to ditch Baldivieso soon after the side arrived home.
Angel Guillermo Hoyos has been handed the reigns and with next to no time to meet, greet and drill his squad, it’s difficult to know what we’re likely to expect from the hosts on Thursday night.
Hoyos called up 93 players for La Verde’s two qualifiers this week suggesting radical changes are afoot and with just a W1-D0-L5 record from their opening third of fixtures, Bolivia might as well try and build for the future.
The hosts have W3-D4-L3 in World Cup qualifiers at their base in La Paz but over their past 13 outings across all competitions, Bolivia have W0-D1-L12, shipping at least two goals on each occasion. It’s not a pretty sight.
Peru put their own qualifying struggles behind them to progress from their Copa America pool once more but Los Incas were then eliminated in the last-eight. It was an excellent achievement considering the country chose to select an experimental squad, went home unbeaten and even took the scalp of Brazil.
However, Ricardo Gareca’s been frustrated that Peru have been unable to end a horrid 12-year wait for an away day win in World Cup qualifying. Nevertheless, ‘to nil’ defeats at Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay are far from embarrassing and the high altitude in La Paz shouldn’t have any impact on the Incas.
I’m happy to put faith in the improving Peruvians to avoid defeat here. BetVictor are offering 11/12 on the visitors with a +0.25 Asian Handicap start – we’ll take a half-stakes win if the match ends in a draw and a full-stakes profit should Peru win.
Colombia v Venezuela | Thursday 21.30
Since reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup for the first time, Colombia had been a huge disappointment. A meek showing in the 2015 Copa America and a four point haul from their first four qualifiers had heaped pressure upon boss Jose Pekerman.
The midfield was lacking fluency but the Colombian coach switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and it appears to have done the trick. Pekerman also added a smattering of the nation’s talented U23 generation into the senior squad to freshen up the personnel.
The impact was immediate as Los Cafeteros came to the fore in their last two World Cup qualifiers at the end of March, putting together back-to-back wins over Bolivia and Ecuador – scoring three times in each contest – to climb back into fifth in the latest standings.
A bronze medal at this summer’s Copa shouldn’t be sniffed at – eventual champions Chile dumped the side out in the final-four – and accusations remain over their ability to take the initiative from midfield but back in Barranquilla, Colombia should be expected to continue their road to Russia with a cushy win.
Visitors Venezuela upset the odds to beat Los Cafeteros in the 2015 Copa America, enhancing a return of just one loss in six head-to-heads with the Colombians, but Rafael Dudamel’s men look will do well to repeat the feat here.
Sitting rock-bottom of the standings with only a point to their name, La Vinotinto axed Noel Sanvincente in March for Dudamel. The previous coach was criticised for trying to adopt a more aggressive approach but Venezuela’s high defensive line left them particularly vulnerable.
Dudamel made a solid start to his spell in the summer, giving La Vinotinto more of a backbone and base to work from. But promisingly too, Venezuela troubled Argentina in attacking areas during their 4-1quarter-finals exit having made it through the group-stages looking reasonably comfortable.
Morale has been restored but I’m not sure this outfit can really rock Colombia’s world on Thursday night. The guests have failed to score more than one goal in any of their last nine matches and a routine home success looks likeliest.
Seven of Colombia’s past eight World Cup qualifying wins on home soil have arrived by a margin of two goals or more so we’ll back the hosts -1.5 in the Asian Handicap at 11/10 (Bet365).
Ecuador v Brazil | Thursday 22.00
Brazil suggested this summer’s Copa wasn’t a priority but the dismal performance in America, coupled with a lacklustre offering in their opening six qualifiers, led to the sacking of Dunga.
If World Cup qualification ended today, the Selecao wouldn’t be on the plane to Russia and although the psychological boost from claiming Olympic gold has lifted spirits, real supporters know the acid test begins now.
Tite is the new name in the dugout and his first contest is a very tricky away trip to the crushing altitude of Quito in Ecuador before a grudge game against Colombia – these two fixtures could easily make or break Brazil’s battle to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Olympic stars Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Gabigol, Weverton, Renato Augusto, Rodrigo Caio and Marquinhos have all been recalled for the senior side whilst Tite opted to leave out Luiz Gustavo, Thiago Silva, Douglas Costa, Ricardo Oliveira, Alexandre Pato and Hulk in favour of Fagner, Giuliano and Paulinho.
The five-time World Cup winners have struggled in every recent visit to the Ecuadorian capital so the new boss has made a change to preparation in the hope of changing Brazil’s fortunes.
Instead, as is standard practice, of preparing at sea level and moving up to the Andes as close as possible to kick-off time to minimise the effects of the punishing altitude, the Selecao coach is taking his players to Quito as early as possible so they can get used to the conditions.
Whether this alternative approach will pay dividends is anyone’s guess but Brazil look unlikely to do their reputation justice on Thursday night considering Ecuador’s outstanding record in their capital home.
The hosts have lost just two of their last 30 qualifiers on home soil, with Brazil failing to win there this century. Gustavo Quinteros’ troops are already joint-top of the standings having claimed 13 points from a possible 18 but Los Amarillos have also netted in each encounter, scoring at least twice on five occasions.
Ecuador haven’t failed to score in a home World Cup qualifier since June 2008 – a run of 17 matches – and they should relish the encounter with a Brazilian side that’s shipped goals in five of their six qualifiers played so far.
With those stats and trends in tow, it’s impossible tor resist the 3/4 (Bet365) available on Ecuador off a 0 start on the Asian Handicap line – the same selection as a Draw No Bet attack.
Ecuador will miss the suspended Luis Antonio Valencia but there’s plenty of pace and power throughout the side to trouble Brazil here. The hosts will look to stretch the game and run their breathless visitors to empty however, I’m not convinced they can keep their sheets clean – hence, not backing them to win.
Both Teams To Score has proven profitable in each of Ecuador’s last four qualifiers as well as four of Brazil’s past five on the road to Russia so I’ll stick BTTS in the mixer at 5/6 (Betfair) too.
Argentina v Uruguay | Friday 00.30
No senior title since 1993, Argentina are still licking their wounds following another final defeat.
Lionel Messi may have gone back on his decision to retire from national duty but head coach Gerardo Martino stepped down following the Copa America defeat and La Albiceleste were plunged into chaos thereafter.
Edgardo Bauza has been handed the role of picking Argentina up off the floor but he’ll have to make-do without the injured Sergio Aguero and Javier Pastore for a crunch contest against high-flying Uruguay in his first examination. Messi should shake off his current knock.
Martino had resigned when it became clear that Argentina would struggle to raise a squad for the Rio Olympics. Bauza’s first role was then to coax Messi back as without the Barcelona genius, there’s a sense La Albiceleste could fluff their lines and miss out on Russia altogether.
Bauza’s also drafted in Lucas Pratto of Atletico Mineiro, and Lucas Alario of River Plate – two hulking centre-forwards of the target man variety. So will we see a completely new approach from Argentina here? Possibly.
If Argentina are looking ragged around the edges and coming to terms with another new coach, ideas and concepts, Uruguay are the polar opposite.
La Celeste happily brushed off first round elimination in the Copa America as they lead the World Cup qualification table alongside Ecuador, despite the fact that only now are they set to be at something close to full strength.
Uruguay head coach Oscar Tabarez has been in the position for over 10 years now and has the luxury of both Luis Suarez and skipper Diego Godin together for the first time in this campaign and the squad is well settled.
Don’t expect any surprises from the visitors here – they’ll be dogged in defence, swift and clinical on the counter, a threat from set-pieces and have a world class edge to hurt any nation.
I’m backing the settled guests to avoid defeat here with 13/10 (Bet365) available on the +0.50 Asian Handicap.
Paraguay v Chile | Friday 01.00
After waiting 99 years for a title, two have come along at once for Chile winners of the Copa America in both 2015 and 16.
This has not come out of the blue. In the last two World Cups Chile have produced their best ever performances in the competition, with the exception of 1962, when they were the tournament hosts.
The current generation, then, have an indisputable claim to be the best Chilean team of all time but the question now remains – has the current crop peaked?
La Roja made a slow start in America in a competition that looked like an inconvenience before Jorge Sampaoli’s untimely departure. With Juan Antonio Pizzi thrown into the deep end, the new Chile boss was chuffed to have the time to work with his players and the national team once again appears settled.
The 7-0 shellacking handed out to Mexico served as a warning to continental rivals that Chile still pack plenty of punch and although there’s no more three at the back, Pizzi does like to play with a target-man in attack and La Roja may present a different beast when September rolls around.
Chile head to Paraguay in the early hours of Friday with La Albirroja seeing head coach Ramon Diaz resign after a forgettable Copa America. The hosts scored just once in three games but the itinerary was unfavourable and performances on the whole were reasonable considering.
Paraguay do have a collection of young talent waiting for their chance but new head coach Francisco Arce must not fall into the same trap that saw his previous reign tainted. Arce tried to change things too quickly when he took over, and results suffered as a consequence
The mood in the nation towards their national team is sour but Arce is determined to win the public over. Paraguay, who reached four successive World Cups between 1998 and 2010, are seventh in the standings but only a solitary point off an automatic qualification position.
This is a team that’s in transition with home qualifying results that leave little to be desired. Since 2009 Paraguay have returned W6-D3-L6 as hosts in World Cup qualifying with four of those triumphs arriving against either Bolivia or Peru.
Still, Brazil and Argentina have already been held to draws here during the current campaign and I’m just not interested in 6/4 quotes on the visitors picking up maximum points.
Instead, Over 2.5 Goals appeals at 19/17 (188BET). Chile are the joint-highest scorers thus far but only the bottom three nations have conceded more goals than La Roja – throw in the fact their last five (and 16 of their previous 24) away qualifiers have featured three or more goals and we’ve a decent angle.
For what it’s worth, six of Paraguay’s past seven home qualifiers have also breached the Over 2.5 Goals mark whilst three of the last four head-to-heads have also produced at least three goals.
Bolivia v Peru – Peru +0.25 Asian Handicap (11/12 BetVictor)
Colombia v Venezuela – Colombia -1.5 Asian Handicap (11/10 Bet365)
Ecuador v Brazil – Both Teams To Score (5/6 Betfair)
Ecuador v Brazil – Ecuador 0 Asian Handicap (3/4 Bet365)
Argentina v Uruguay – Uruguay +0.50 Asian Handicap (13/10 Bet365)
Paraguay v Chile – Over 2.5 Goals (19/17 188BET)