INTERNATIONAL football obsessive Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on Tuesday night's crunch World Cup qualifiers from South America.
South America's World Cup qualification campaign is a marathon. With a total of 18 rounds played over more than two years, stretching over three club seasons, it is all but impossible to maintain consistency from the first kick-off to the final whistle.
Now, with the final furlong in sight and only three fixtures to play, seven nations are looking to squeeze into the three remaining automatic qualification places and one play-off position. It should be eventful.
Bolivia v Chile | Tuesday 5th September 2017, 21:00
I suggested in Thursday’s preview piece that Chile might not be in the right frame of mind for their contest at home to Paraguay last time out but I certainly didn’t expect La Roja to be turned over on their own patch.
With all-time top scorer Alexis Sanchez risking the wrath of head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi having requested a day off to sort out his future and fellow star Arturo Vidal hitting the headlines for partying too hard at a casino just 72 hours before the encounter, excuses were ready-made for the Chileans.
I gave La Roja the benefit of the doubt. Earlier last week Chile had welcomed the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to uphold FIFA’s ruling against Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player in two earlier qualifiers, one of which was an embarrassing 0-0 draw against La Verde in Santiago.
Without that match being awarded 3-0 in Chile’s favour, they would be right in the mire. And with Sanchez and Vidal both way below-par in their home reverse to Paraguay, you have to question La Roja here.
The visitors looked weary in the Confederations Cup – their fourth successive summer of tournament football. Even though Chile reached the final, the tournament only brought about one win and four goals in five games.
Indeed, La Roja are an ageing squad and they’ve noticeably lacked the precision and sharpness that became their forte over their most successful period of international football in history. Their style requires constant high intensity and with energy levels dropping, options are lacking in the final-third.
Veteran playmaker Jorge Valdivia only came off the bench and he’s unlikely to be trusted on Tuesday night in the punishing altitude of La Paz. Instead, Pizzi appears to be reverting to a 4-3-1-2 formation with Paulo Diaz and Francisco Silva being brought in for the suspended Gonzalo Jara and Charles Aranguiz.
Pablo Hernandez should earn a recall in place of Nicholas Castillo with Vidal given more freedom in the attacking midfield spot. Despite being labelled “fat” and “overweight” by his former U20 coach Jose Sulantay, Sanchez should spearhead Chile’s attack.
La Roja were unfortunate to fall behind to Vidal’s spectacular own goal against Paraguay but thereafter, Pizzi’s posse were unable to break the Paraguayans resilience and were instead caught out on the break. Despite dominating possession again, clear-cut chances were few and far between.
The visitors arrive in Bolivia having fired blanks in each of their last three away qualifiers and having bottled it on Thursday, I’m not missing out on the opportunity to oppose Chile at the odds on offer here. Bolivia can be backed with a +0.50 start at 28/29 with 188BET.
La Verde are renowned wretched travellers – they’ve picked up six points from a possible 129 this century. But as already mentioned, they did hold Chile in Santiago earlier in this campaign, only to see the result overturned due to the ineligible player.
Last time out, Bolivia could have earned a surprise draw at Peru. Although comfortably losing out in the performance data metrics, La Verde spurred a last-second opportunity to grab an equaliser so they should return home pleased with their efforts despite the final score.
Indeed, there are promising signs domestically – Bolivian sides are improving due to an influx of foreign coaches – and although the national side are inexperienced and lacking real quality, they remain dangerous operators in lofty La Paz.
The home side lie ninth in the table but have accumulated 14 points – four of which have been taken away – and have W4-D1-L2 as hosts during this qualifying campaign. Only Uruguay have departed with a victory by two goals or more whilst Argentina were downed 2-0 here in March.
Chile may have claimed three victories on the spin in Bolivia but they arrive in a poor state of mind, clinging on to fourth place with the unenviable trip to Brazil still to come in their three remaining games. The guests have W1-D1-L4 on their World Cup travels recently and recorded a sole shutout on the road during the current campaign.
Colombia v Brazil | Tuesday 5th September 2017, 21:30
Brazil became the first nation other than hosts Russia to guarantee their place at the 2018 World Cup thanks to the wonderful work achieved by boss Tite.
Having arrived with the Samba Boys slumped in sixth after six rounds following a disastrous spell with Dunga, the country in the midst of a worrying recession and a turbulent political climate, the normally sparkling Selecao (and nation) were in crisis.
But Brazil have rolled out nine successive qualifying victories, 26 goals and only two conceded under one of country’s most forward-thinking coaches. TV ratings are as high as ever and the Samba Boys are again being talked about as serious World Cup contenders – how times change…
Tite’s first XI is consistent and Brazil are now playing a much more compact game with a higher defensive line. It allows the side to play a more possession-based style under their terrific man-manager and I can only assume he’ll be keen to keep momentum going ahead of next summer.
“The World Cup has already kicked off. The team should feel the pressure. I want to see my players under pressure, I want the team to play well, showing strong performances, I want to find the balance between joy and responsibility,” Tite underlined.
Should Brazil win their next three games against Colombia, Bolivia and Chile, the side will reach 45 points, smashing the previous record total in CONMEBOL qualifying. They’ve already recorded Brazil’s best-ever tally and so far ahead of the pack are the Selecao that they are guaranteed to finish in first position.
But Brazil took time to open Ecuador up on Thursday night – needing a switch from 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1 and the instrumental introduction of Philippe Coutinho to help break their opposition down. Neymar was petulant and individualistic whilst there were times when full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo were exposed.
Marcelo is suspended for this encounter whilst Casemiro, Miranda and Gabriel Jesus may drop out for Filipe Luis, Fernandinho and Roberto Firmino for this encounter as Tite shuffles his pack for the first time since taking charge in a competitive contest. Brazil must also battle an arduous schedule.
Having played in Porto Alegre, the Selecao face a seven-hour flight to Colombia’s Caribbean coast and the stifling heat of Barranquilla this showdown. We can only assume, it’ll count against the table-topping visitors.
After reaching the World Cup the quarter-finals for the first time in their history in 2014, Colombia coach boss Jose Pekerman said the tournament would mark the moment when Colombian football took a definitive place at the game's top table. However, Los Cafeteros have flattering to deceive since.
Although Pekerman’s group currently lie second in the CONMEBOL table, they’re far from assured of automatic qualification with just a point picked up rock-bottom Venezuela last time out.
The side that thrilled in Brazil three years ago has struggled through the campaign, scoring just 18 goals in 15 games whilst Pekerman has used an eye-boggling 41 players in the process, suggesting the boss is still struggling to find the right blend and balance to his side.
It’s a shame. Colombia have the raw materials to form a really strong side and in the June friendlies, it looked like the head coach was finally beginning to settle on something. Radamel Falcao’s stunning return to form ensures the Monaco striker will lead the line once more whilst James Rodriguez’s is expected to return here.
Leading centre-half Yerry Mina remains injured – a major blow – but questions must be asked about Colombia’s inability to open up opposition defences. Venezuela stopper Wuilker Farinez made one remarkable stop from Falcao but other than that, Los Cafeteros struggled in the final-third.
Although not 100%, James’ return should bolster the mood and output of Colombia here and they’ll have happy recent memories of meeting Brazil – frustrating the Samba Boys in a tenacious Copa America clash in 2015. Carlos Sanchez excelled that day and a similar man-marking job on Neymar is forecast.
Argentina are the only nation to turn Colombia over on their own patch over the past two qualifying campaigns (W9-D4-L2) and the conditions should also aid the hosts here. Brazil might be a cut above the rest in South America but I’m happy to keep the hosts onside here with a +0.25 start at 5/6 (188BET).
With this selection, we’ll make a half-stakes profit should Colombia collect a draw and a full-stakes return should the home side beat Brazil.
Ecuador v Peru | Tuesday 5th September 2017, 22:00
Ecuador came out of the blocks at a blistering pace, winning their first four fixtures. After a third of the campaign, La Tri were only off the top on goal difference but at the halfway point, Ecuador had dropped down to third. They’re now sitting in eighth and in real danger of missing out on Russia altogether.
Gustavo Quinteros’ group have managed only two wins in 11 with form and fitness hitting their small pool of players hard. Jefferson Montero and Enner Valencia have both been below-par for such reasoning whilst centre-back remains a running problem.
There are also concerns that the team no longer gains the same advantage from playing its home games at the altitude of Quito, since an increasing number of players are based abroad and have lost familiarity with the conditions.
La Tri finish with a home tie against Argentina and an away day in Chile so the hosts will be well aware, collecting maximum points here is imperative to keep lingering dreams alive. Results on Thursday were favourable – bar Ecuador’s opponents Brazil, none of the teams above them managed a single goal.
Tuesday night’s visitors Peru did get on the scoresheet, twice, as they picked up another value victory to move above La Tri. But Peru were thanking their lucky stars when a two-goal advantage was almost wiped out deep into stoppage-time against terrible travellers Bolivia.
The Peruvians have been boosted by the award of three points from a game they lost against Bolivia earlier in qualifying due to La Verde fielding an ineligible player although a recent run of W3-D1-L1 in their past five games has put Los Incas into contention for a top-five finish.
Still, haunted by their failure to make it to a World Cup since 1982, Peru made hard work of breaking down the Bolivians in Lima and were thankful for two magnificently struck goals in quick succession early in the second half from Edison Floes and Cristian Cueva.
With tough ties against Argentina and Colombia still to come, boss Ricardo Gareca knows the importance of this showdown. Nevertheless, there’s been progress made in Peruvian football as the group claimed a first away qualifying victory in 13 years when winning away in Paraguay last November.
Peru have scored in all bar one of their last nine games – against Brazil – but have managed a sole clean sheet throughout the current campaign. Meanwhile, Ecuador have silenced two sides since over the past two years of qualifying action and collectively these two have shipped 46 goals in 30 matches.
With Over 2.5 Goals landing in 15 of the past 20 combined encounters in CONMEBOL qualifying and 10/14 of the duos collecting home/away outings, I’m keen to keep a high-scoring meeting onside with Over 2.5 Goals available at 7/8 with Unibet.
Argentina v Venezuela | Wednesday 6th September 2017, 00:30
Jorge Sampaoli failed to win his first competitive match in charge of a new side for the 10th time on Thursday night as Argentina played out a drab 0-0 draw with neighbours Uruguay in Montevideo.
Sampaoli – La Albiceleste’s third coach of a treacherous campaign – was unable to unlock the galaxy of attacking inspiration inside the star-studded squad at the first time of asking. Argentina have scored just 15 goals thus far – a sad indictment of a side that has been punching far below its weight.
With home games in two of the last three rounds – against Venezuela here and Peru next month – something will have to go badly wrong for Argentina to finish lower than their current position of fifth (the play-off spot) but there’s still plenty of work to be done to secure a place in Russia.
Lionel Messi remained a one-man band – dubbed Messidependence – against Uruguay, dropping far too deep whilst Javier Mascherano – seen as a defender by Sampaoli but excluded from the side due to his lack of height – was badly missed in the centre of midfield where Lucas Biglia and Guido Pizarro struggled.
The return from suspension of Ever Banega should improve matters but the odd decision to play left-footed Marcos Acuna on the right shows Sampaoli has the temerity to make a strange call here and there. Mascherano will return here but only in place of the suspended Gabriel Mercado.
Goals really shouldn’t be an issue for this team with Mauro Icardi spearheading the attack and flanked by Messi and Paulo Dybala. But their lack of playing time together showed on Thursday and Argentina had few answers to combat Uruguay’s eight-man defensive line.
So they’ll be expected to release the shackles a bit more here and cut Venezuela open. La Albiceleste have never failed to beat Venezuela on home soil and have won by at least three goals in nine of the 11 previous meetings in Argentina. But I’m not sure I’m on-board with the handicap set at three goals here.
Sampaoli’s back three didn’t inspire much confidence despite coming under little pressure against Uruguay and Venezuela certainly do have the potential to embarrass their hosts on the counter-attack.
Venezuela’s focus is already on the 2022 World Cup and head coach Rafael Dudamel is building a long-term project. Doubling up as the boss of the U20 El Vinotinto outfit, Dudamel guided the youngsters to the final of the World U20 Cup in June and has selected a youthful squad for this week’s matches.
The hosts may have claimed only a sole success in 15 qualifiers but they’ve played well in plenty of matches, only to be undone by lapses in defensive concentration. In fact, Venezuela’s record of 17 goals scored is just one less than Colombia and two more than Argentina.
The head coach caused plenty of concern back home when suggesting the national team’s federation no longer have the money to pay him, despite signing a contract extension earlier this year, but he’ll be staying on until the campaign’s conclusion nonetheless.
Here, he’s missing key midfield man Tomas Rincon through suspension and his experience will definitely be missed. But Venezuela’s strongest element is their attack where centre-forward Salomon Rondon is backed up by the speed of Josef Martinez, Darwin Mathis, Sergio Cordova, John Murillo and Romulo Otero.
The Rondon-Martinez combination has given Argentina plenty of problems in recent games and although El Vinotinto are winless away – W0-D1-L6 – conceding at least three goals in six of their seven away matches, I’m going to back the visitors to get on the scoresheet in defeat.
The +3 Asian Handicap mark is interesting at 3/4 (Winner) – Venezuela haven’t been beaten by four or more goals in 18 away qualifiers now and Argentina have only triumphed by the same margin in one of their past 18 competitive home clashes but I’ll stick with the hunkier 21/10 (BetVictor) on the win and BTTS.
Paraguay v Uruguay | Wednesday 6th September 2017, 01:00
Paraguay arguably produced the result of the last round, winning 3-0 away at Chile to give La Albirroja a huge boost in their quest to reach Russia. Francisco Arce’s side had suffered four defeats on the spin prior to that success and notched only four goals in seven previous away qualifiers.
Paraguay are now just two points off automatic qualification with a home tie against Venezuela still to come. So the home side will be desperate to record back-to-back World Cup qualifying victories for the first time since 2009 on Tuesday night.
Renowned for punching above their weight and their natural resilience, La Albirroja returned to their old guard for this week’s tumultuous fixtures. Arce realised experienced heads were required and a return to their customary organised chaos was key.
Veteran Paulo da Silva excelled at the back, protected by experienced midfielders Victor Caceres and Cristian Riveros. The youthful pace of Oscar Romero and Miguel Almiron on the counter attack blended perfectly as a patient Paraguay waited for their opportunities, which eventually came as Chile pressed.
La Albirroja must now decide whether to adopt a similarly cautious approach here against a Uruguay side that would probably be happy to take a share of the spoils. The hosts have W3-D2-L2 on their own patch – holding Brazil and Argentina – but will be well aware a repeat might not be enough.
A third of the way through the marathon qualification process, Uruguay topped the table on goal difference (W4-D1-L1) and at the midway point, La Celeste were sitting pretty at the peak alone (W6-D1-L2).
Historically, 28 points has always been enough for direct qualification and Oscar Washington Tabarez’s troops were only nine points adrift of that tally with nine games to play. But heading into this week, Uruguay have dropped to third and only a point above the play-off position (W7-D3-L5).
Over the past five rounds of action, La Celeste have accrued just five points (W1-D2-L3) and conceded 12 goals. Once looking comfortable, Uruguay are now anxiously looking over their shoulders and appearing alarmingly brittle.
Tabarez has kept faith with a small group – Uruguay have only used 28 players in the campaign, everyone else has used more – and with defensive solidity essential to his team’s performance, the veteran coach was understandably pleased his team kept Argentina at bay on Thursday.
However, La Celeste looked bereft of confidence and only rarely crossed the halfway line as they effectively played an 8-0-2 formation with Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani feeding off scraps up top. Substitute midfielder Matias Corujo came on for the last 25 minutes and didn’t even touch the ball as Uruguay looked to lockdown a valuable point against a direct rival.
How will they attack this encounter? Possibly not so defensively-minded but I’m sure Uruguay will be desperate to avoid defeat again so the fixture might not be one for the purists. Indeed, these two nations are aware of their limitations and value the blood, sweat and sacrifice over artistic talent so expect a battle.
Nevertheless, I am attracted to the 4/5 (BetStars) on Both Teams To Score. Paraguay have notched in five of their seven home qualifiers – all five seeing BTTS bank – and know they must get a result here. Five of those contests also saw at least three goals.
Meanwhile, Uruguay have followed a similar pattern on their travels with five of seven qualifiers seeing Over 2.5 Goals pay-out, as well as Both Teams To Score. Indeed, La Celeste have scored in eight of their last 10 games as guests in CONMEBOL but recorded only two clean sheets in 18 away qualifiers whilst winning on only four occasions.
Bolivia v Chile – Bolivia +0.50 Asian Handicap (28/29 188BET)
Colombia v Brazil – Colombia +0.25 Asian Handicap (5/6 188BET)
Ecuador v Peru – Over 2.5 Goals (7/8 Unibet)
Argentina v Venezuela – Argentina to win and Both Teams To Score (21/10 BetVictor)
Paraguay v Uruguay – Both Teams To Score (4/5 BetStars)