INTERNATIONAL football obsessive Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on Thursday 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 four 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.
Venezuela v Colombia | Thursday 31st August 2017, 22:00
The 2014 World Cup would mark the moment when Colombian football took a definitive place at the game's top table. That was the remark made by Los Cafeteros boss Jose Pekerman as his side reached the quarter-finals of the competition for the first time in their history.
However, having disappointed at the Copa America in 2015 and flattering to deceive a year later in the Copa Centenario. Colombia really haven’t lived up to expectations since. Although Pekerman’s posse currently lie second in the CONMEBOL table, they’re far from assured of automatic qualification.
Two victories would secure 30 points – the standard threshold required to all but guarantee a top-four finish – but back-to-back defeats in Venezuela and against runaway leaders Brazil next week would put Los Cafeteros in the middle of a dogfight.
Colombia are only four points clear of sixth – a place outside of the qualification positions – so they can ill-afford precious few slip-ups in the final stretch.
The side that thrilled in Brazil three years ago has struggled through the campaign, scoring just 18 goals in 14 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 with James Rodriguez’s fitness ruling him out.
China-based playmaker Giovanni Moreno has been recalled, in-form striker Yimmi Chara of Junior Barranquilla has been given a first call-up and promising youngsters Davinson Sanchez and central midfielder Wilmar Barrios are also in the group but leading centre-half Yerry Mina has dropped out injured.
Christian Zapata looks likely to play alongside Sanchez in the heart of the Colombian defence but I’m certainly not counting on Los Cafetero keeping already-eliminated Venezuela out in San Cristobal.
The visitors might be unbeaten in eight matches since the 2016 Copa when excluding Brazil and Argentina but they’ve managed just two clean sheets in nine away World Cup qualifiers and so Both Teams To Score stands out at 10/11 (William Hill).
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.
There are five teenagers – including a 16 year-old and 17 year-old – as well as six uncapped players being fast-tracked into the roster for Venezuela but don’t expect the minnows to go down without a fight.
The hosts may have claimed only a sole success in 14 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.
El Vinotinto have scored 1.57 goals per-home-game on average during this campaign and seen BTTS pay out in all four of their outings this calendar year, plus four of their past six home qualifiers. Over 2.5 Goals has also proven profitable in five of their recent seven home encounters.
However, Venezuela have recorded a solitary shutout as hosts since 2013 and have leaked an average of 2.43 goals per-game during this qualification trail. Considering Colombia have already netted in Brazil, Chile and the crushing altitude of Ecuadorean capital Quito, they should be good enough to net here.
Chile v Paraguay| Thursday 31st August 2017, 23:30
It’s been an eventful week in Chilean football. The nation was on tenterhooks, anxiously waiting for a verdict from the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
A year ago they drew 0-0 at home to Bolivia in a World Cup qualifier, but were later awarded the match 3-0 on the grounds that their opponents had fielded an ineligible player. Bolivia appealed and the COAFS ruled FIFA were correct in their ruling; Chile breathed a huge sigh of relief. Currently enjoying a three-point cushion to sixth, La Roja would have been dragged right into the mire had the decision been overruled.
Elsewhere, all-time top scorer Alexis Sanchez risked head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s wrath when requesting a day off from the national squad to sort out his future whilst Arturo Vidal hit the headlines after police were called to a casino where he was partying with friends on Monday night.
Despite the off-field issues, both players should start against Paraguay on Thursday night but tensions between the two nations have also increased following the visitors claiming they caught a member of the Chilean camp spying on Paraguayan training sessions this week. Oh, I love South American football.
There’s potentially a case for saying Chile could suffer, especially with neither of their two stars in the best frame of mind. But La Roja have proven their ability to perform in Santiago under the spotlight plenty of times over the past few years.
Sure, the ageing squad looked weary in the Confederations Cup – their fourth successive summer of tournament football – but they still dominated possession. What was missing was precision and sharpness on the ball so it’s interesting to see Pizzi recall veteran playmaker Jorge Valdivia.
Pizzi’s not often trusted the 34 year-old but the team’s dearth of goals in the Confederations Cup caused concern and the twinkle-toed Valdivia undoubtedly has the potential to unlock defences with the inventiveness of his passing. Having returned to Chile this year, he looks in line for a start here.
Paraguay have also returned to the old guard as they bid to keep their lingering hopes of qualification alive. Sixteen of the 23-man squad from the 2010 World Cup are back playing domestic football and a fair few of them have made Francisco Arce’s latest squad.
In his first spell, Arce tried to change too much too soon. La Albirroja finished bottom of the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign but the boss appears to have learnt his lesson and has looked to experience to guide the group through a very testing month of matches.
Paraguay are eighth, four points behind the play-off place. But their recent form is woeful having lost each of their last four, including a 3-0 defeat to Brazil and a 5-0 hammering in a friendly against France. The visitors have notched just four goals in seven away qualifiers, losing ‘to nil’ on four occasions.
La Albirroja – renowned for punching above their weight and their natural resilience – haven’t been as bright for a while now. In fact, Paraguay have lost eight of their last nine outside their home country and won just twice in 15 away World Cup qualifiers so it’s hard to make a case for the upset.
Chile have claimed W14-D3-L1 in competitive home games over the past five years, while only Brazil and Uruguay have scored more than La Roja during the current campaign. However, with only one home success alongside a clean sheet during this trail, I’m ignoring the win ‘to nil’.
Instead, back Chile to win alongside Over 1.5 Goals at 4/5 (BetStars). It’s paid out in 13 of the aforementioned 14 home victories, as well as 13 of Paraguay’s last 15 away qualifying defeats.
Brazil v Ecuador | Friday 1st September, 01:45
Brazil are in party mood. The Samba Boys 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 rolled out eight successive qualifying victories, Tite has transformed the Selecao from strugglers to realistic World Cup contenders in the space of 12 months. And as a reward, Thursday night’s match with Ecuador has been taken to Porto Alegre, the hometown of the head coach.
Amidst a worrying recession, a turbulent political climate and the nightmare of the 6-1 shellacking by the Germans still fresh in the memory, Brazil were struggling on and off the field. The disastrous decision to bring back Dunga backfired and the Samba Boys were in crisis.
Tite has brought qualification with four games to spare – despite arriving with the nation down in sixth and outside the qualification slots – alongside 24 goals scored and only two conceded in his eight competitive contests. Understandably, the public are back on side and TV ratings are as high as ever.
The 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 game under their terrific man-manager and I can only assume he’ll be keen to keep momentum going ahead of next summer.
Considering the Selecao have never lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil and scored at least twice in all of their last 11 competitive outings, it would be a huge shock to see Ecuador topple the hosts here.
The visitors 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 sixth and in real danger of missing out on Russia altogether.
Gustavo Quinteros’ group have managed only two wins in 10 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.
Old guard Gabriel Achilier and Frickson Erazo have been in and out of favour whilst Arturo Mina and Luis Caicedo have seen performance level dip after moving away from domestic clubs and losing confidence.
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.
Anything Ecuador can get from this Porto Alegre match is a bonus. La Tri will need to finish with three wins to have a real opportunity of qualification as those fixtures come at home to Peru and Argentina, plus a trip to Santiago to face Chile.
Despite the negativity, Ecuador still offer counter-attacking threats down the flanks and it’s worth noting they’ve scored at least once in all of their last nine away World Cup qualifiers – the past six of which have seen Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score bank.
With that in mind, I’ll back Brazil to win alongside Over 2.5 Goals at 10/11 with Sportingbet. It’s won in 20 of the Samba Boys’ past 22 World Cup qualifying triumphs.
Peru v Bolivia | Friday 1st September 2017, 03:15
Peru haven’t been to the World Cup since 1982 but Los Incas still harbour an outside chance of reaching Russia thanks to the same court case that ruled against Bolivia by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (as mentioned in the Chile v Paraguay segment).
Had the three points been taken away from Ricardo Gareca’s men, Peru would have no chance in qualification. In fact, visitors Bolivia would only be a point behind Los Incas had the case been overturned after beating Peru 2-0 in one of the matches that featured an ineligible player.
Nevertheless, there’s been progress made in Peruvian football. Gareca’s group have claimed two away qualifying victories during the current campaign – their first away competitive wins in 13 years – and they arrive at this contest unbeaten in 2017 (W3-D1-L0).
Peru will see this contest as their home banker before a potentially decisive encounter with Ecuador next week. Gareca’s spoken positively about the ascent he’s overseen but I’m still unwilling to get involved with Los Incas at dreadfully short prices here.
The hosts still have the capacity to collapse mentally and having kept a sole clean sheet throughout the current campaign, it’s difficult to invest our trust and money into Peru in any markets here.
Of course, Bolivia are wretched travellers – they’ve picked up five points from a possible 126 this century – with La Verde relying on the crushing effects of altitude at their La Paz base to secure the majority of their points.
There are promising signs domestically – Bolivian sides are improving due to an influx of foreign coaches – but the national side are inexperienced and lacking real quality. Only 10 players in the current squad have won 10 caps or more but they won’t be willing to just roll over here.
Peru have scored in all bar one of their last eight games – against Brazil – whilst seven of their past nine meaningful matches on home soil have seen Both Teams To Score bank. But with Bolivia firing blanks in six of their seven away days in the current campaign, I’m happy to swerve this contest altogether.
Venezuela v Colombia – Both Teams To Score (10/11 William Hill)
Chile v Paraguay – Chile to win and Over 1.5 Goals (4/5 BetStars)
Brazil v Ecuador – Brazil to win and Over 2.5 Goals (10/11 Sportingbet)