Only in South America! Where World Cup qualification in some continents can be dull and predictable, there is an edge to the CONMEBOL campaign that is hard to find elsewhere. On Thursday, for example, the side at the bottom of the table spent an hour a goal against on the 100% top-of-the-table team. But in the end, Venezuela had its collective heart broken. At half-time Brazil brought on Raphinha for his international debut, and the Leeds United winger tipped the balance, helping set up three goals in the final 25 minutes.
Brazil, then, are still 100% and Venezuela remain rooted to the footof the table. A shock triumph in Caracas might have kick started their campaign. This latest defeat, their fourth in a row, surely ends even the most remote hopes of staging a late rally and snatching a place in Qatar.
The three losers in Thursday’s 10th round of qualifying were the trio at the foot of the table, which makes sorry reading for Chile and Bolivia as well as Venezuela. But there might be hope for the first two. Both Chile and Bolivia have played six times on the road, and only four at home. That imbalance is put right over the next few days, with two home fixtures coming up on Sunday and Thursday. Chile host Paraguay and Venezuela. Bolivia, at the extreme altitude of La Paz, are at home to Peru and Paraguay. These are all eminently winnable matches. It is easy, then, to project a scenario where by next Thursday these two stragglers have played their way back into contention. With a pair of wins Chile will have pulled themselves ahead of Paraguay in sixth place, and Bolivia will be level on points with the Paraguayans. The supply of drinks may be running out, but at least the last chance saloon is still open for Chile and Bolivia.
Home advantage matters in South America. Bolivia have gone five games without a win. But four of them were away. Chile are seven without a win, but five of them were away. If they can find some form in front of their own fans — and supporters are now returning to South American stadiums — then they can put themselves in with a chance. There would still be plenty of work ahead. Sixth place sounds good to the teams who are currently eighth and ninth. But it is not good enough to go to the World Cup. The top four qualify automatically, with the side finishing fifth going into a play off. Much depends on slip ups from the teams nearer the top of the table. And here, too, there are grounds for the likes of Chile and Bolivia to hold on to the dream.
Firstly, they will hope that Venezuela gain heart from giving Brazil such a scare and take some points off third-placed Ecuador on Sunday. And they will also be happy to see slip ups from the teams currently standing fourth and fifth, Uruguay and Colombia. This is a genuine possibility, because, respectively, they are up against the big two, Argentina and Brazil, in the most attractive fixtures of Sunday’s round.
Argentina will hope to welcome back Lautaro Martinez for their game at home to Uruguay. The Inter Milan centre-forward was badly missed in Thursday’s goalless draw away to Paraguay. Argentina showcased their intricate midfield passing, but lacked a penalty area cutting edge. Even so, they moved closer to qualification and extended an unbeaten run that stretches all the way back to the semifinal of the 2019 Copa America.
Uruguay are unbeaten in the last six rounds of qualifiers, though only two of those games were won. They were held to a goalless draw at home to Colombia on Thursday, but their play for the first half hour was their most impressive in some time. Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez appears to be coming off his 4-4-2 system, with the old firm of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front. Suarez played the first half and Cavani, looking short of match fitness, played the second in a 4-3-3 formation that gave the side more fluidity. The impression is that both Argentina and Uruguay are moving in interesting directions in the build up towards Qatar 2022, and it will be fascinating to see them in opposition in Buenos Aires.
Colombia are also unbeaten in the last six rounds, though four of them were draws and coach Reinaldo Rueda is finding it very hard to replace the inspiration of the once more absent James Rodriguez. On Sunday he will also be without the suspended Juan Cuadrado, whose experience and versatility down the right flank are so important to the team. Rueda might be tempted to unleash the creative skills of playmaker Juan Quintero. But however he lines up his side, Colombia should be a stiff test for a Brazil side that, despite their 100% record, are not convincing their own supporters.
Back in 2019, Brazil opened up the campaign in some style. More recently coach Tite appears to have run into problems. With almost half the campaign still to go Brazil have qualified in all but name. They have 27 points, and 28 has always been enough to ensure a World Cup place. Nevertheless, the coach is under pressure. Losing the final of the Copa America to Argentina three months ago did not help. But the side were not impressive in the knock out stages of the Copa, and the subsequent wins against Chile, Peru and Venezuela have left many feeling disappointed, with critics arguing that the level of performance would be nowhere good enough in the decisive stages of a World Cup. Colombia away, followed by Uruguay at home, should reveal more about Brazil’s chances in Qatar.
The time and place of Sunday’s game are important. Colombia like to stage their home matches in the port city of Barranquilla at 4 p.m., when the sweltering heat wears down their opponents. It could backfire. In these triple headers that South America is staging there is little time between the first and second games — just three days, with a four-day break between the second and third matches. And Colombia have had further to travel, having to make their way almost the length of the continent from Montevideo while Brazil have had a shorter trip from Caracas. It could that there is more chance of the Colombians running out of gas in the closing stages. The likes of Chile and Bolivia will certainly hope so. With Brazil as good as over the line, their task is to catch up and overtake the likes of Colombia and Uruguay in the closing stages of the race to Qatar.