With just over 1,000 days until the Final in the Maracanã, CONMEBOL’s nine nations (excluding Brazil) begin their march towards the World Cup with the first round of qualifying matches taking place this week. With every side in action on Friday and again on Tuesday (even Brazil have friendly matches on those days) we have plenty of thrilling football to look forward to. Let’s take a look at Friday’s four qualifiers, and cast a quick glance over the 2014 hosts and their friendly in Costa Rica.
Uruguay x Bolivia – Estadio Centenario, Montevideo 17:00 (UTC -2)
The Copa América winners take on Bolivia in Montevideo with an eye on a good start to their qualifying campaign. This will be Uruguay’s first home game at the famous Estadio Centenario since their triumph in Argentina, and they will be hoping that a noisy home crowd will be able to push them on to victory. Óscar Tabárez keeps virtually the same squad from the Copa América, and is expected to start the team in a 3-4-3 shape.
Traditionally one of CONMEBOL’s ‘whipping boys’, Bolivia, as usual, will be looking to spoil the party on Friday evening. Like they did in the Copa América opener against Argentina, Bolivia will set up in a 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 shape and try to frustrate la Celeste. Bolivia know they can count on some great results in their home matches, but managing to sneak some points away from home will do wonders to their qualifying cause.
Ecuador x Venezuela – Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa, Quito 16:05 (UTC -5)
After the disappointment of the recent Copa América wore off, spirits are high once again in Ecuador. In their last three friendlies, Ecuador won all three matches, scoring eleven goals in the process. Their new strike partnership of Cristián Benítez and Jaime Ayoví carry the hopes of the nation, and early indications suggest that they have a wonderful future alongside one another.
Venezuela, continuing their steady improvement over the past decade, are going into this qualification campaign with a realistic eye on making it to the finals in Brazil in 2014. This will be a very tough start for them however, as they will have to try to overcome a confident Ecuador side in the high-altitude conditions in Quito.
Argentina x Chile – Estadio Monumental, Buenos Aires 20:10 (UTC -3)
New Argentina boss Alejandro Sabella takes charge of the full national side for the first time in a competitive capacity (I’m not counting the domestic Superclássico!) against Claudio Borghi’s Chile side. The mood around the Argentina camp is good, and they will be hoping to get off to a good start in the World Cup qualifiers. They will be without key midfielder Javier Mascherano, but of course they can still count on the fabulous talents of Lionel Messi, Gonzálo Higuaín, Éver Banega and Ángel Di María.
Chile haven’t been so lucky with injuries, and the loss of Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez and defensive midfielder Gary Medel will hit them hard. Losing Sánchez’s magic and creativity is important, but with a defence already struggling not to concede goals, Gary Medel’s midfield protection will be the biggest loss. They will be lucky to get a result against a confident Albiceleste side in the Monumental.
Peru x Paraguay – Estadio Nacional, Lima 20:15 (UTC -5)
After transforming his Peru side from indisciplined losers to Copa América semi-finalists, Uruguayan mastermind coach Sergio Markarián is looking to go one step further and take Peru back to the World Cup finals. What was even more impressive about that Copa América success was that he managed it without two of the nation’s most talented forwards, Jefferson Fárfan and Claudio Pizarro. Now, Markarián is able to count on those two, along with other gems like Juan Vargas and Paolo Guerrero. With the manager’s tactical know-how and the squad’s extra injection of quality, who knows how far Peru could go.
Former Palmeiras and Grêmio wing-back Francisco ‘Chiqui’ Arce will be commanding his first competitive game as Paraguay boss after succeeding Gerardo Martino in July. With victories in his two recent friendlies (albeit against greatly inferior opposition), they set off on their qualification journey with high hopes. After making the final of the Copa América in Argentina, you would expect Paraguay to be the favourites for this clash. However, their record is woeful in Lima, and anything more than a defeat would be quite unexpected.
For a bit more coverage on this one, check out the first episode of exciting new vidcast ‘The Chiqui Boys’ by @paraguayralph and @SergioLahaye.
Let’s not forget about 2014’s hosts Brasil, without a qualifying campaign to go through they are trying to keep the squad sharp with a selection of friendly matches on qualifying match-days…
Costa Rica x Brasil – Estadio Nacional, San José :00 (UTC -)
On Friday the Seleção take on Costa Rica in San José, and after maintaining several players from the domestic squad that defeated Argentina in the Superclássico das Américas, they will be hoping to build some momentum. Lucas and Neymar start alongside eachother in attack once again, this time with Fluminense’s Fred playing through the middle. Once again the full-backs have been rotated, with Mano Menezes handing opportunities to Manchester United’s Fábio and Barcelona’s Adriano.
Menezes has had a tough time in 2011, but after defeating their fierce rivals two weeks previously, a convincing win here would do wonders for his public opinion.