This evening sees all ten of South America’s footballing nations embark on the long qualification journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two years and eighteen matchdays from now, four teams will have earned their places in the group stage draw, with a fifth going into an intercontinental play-off.
In the opinion of this journalist, the South American section of World Cup qualifying is some of the greatest entertainment available in the sport. Only the World Cup itself can compete.
The format of the competition is ideal. Ten teams are lumped together in one large pool, with every country plays each another twice, home and away. The guarantee of eighteen matches allows for the smaller nations to plan and prepare, not only in football terms but in financial terms. It is no secret that since this qualifying format was introduced in the 1990s, the quality of the national teams of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela has increased greatly.
For the bigger nations, a sterner test of ability, squad depth and mental toughness is impossible. Argentina are guaranteed to play rivals Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia twice each. They are guaranteed trips to the altitude of Quito and La Paz. South American sides arrive at World Cups with a profound knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses.
Besides the practical reasons, South American qualifiers bring countless ties seeped in history. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s footballing pioneers, have been playing against one another without interruption since the 1910s. Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay came along soon after.
The qualifying campaign’s first double-header contains some mouth-watering ties. However, none of the ten nations will be at full-strength. These matches are an entree to the feast of international football coming our way over the next two years.
The highlight of matchday one sees Chile face Brazil at the Estádio Nacional in Santiago.
It will be the first time the two teams have met in competition since 28 June last year, when Brazil eliminated Chile on penalties in the World Cup second round. A lot has changed since then.
Chile returned home from that defeat with their heads held high and turned their attentions to hosting the 2015 Copa América. They stormed to victory, beating Argentina in the final and winning their first ever piece of silverware.
Brazil, meanwhile, lost 7-1 to Germany.
With few changes, one should not expect any surprises from Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile team. It is largely the same side that played both the World Cup and the Copa América. However they are without Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz, who tore his Achilles tendon two months ago.
While the plaudits in this Chile side usually go to Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Jorge Valdívia or Gary Medel, Sampaoli’s playing style is bound together by the industry of Aránguiz. His role in the team is just as important as anyone else’s, if not more so.
In their recent friendly against Paraguay, Chile looked vulnerable without Aránguiz. Sampaoli is likely to use Arturo Vidal in a deeper role to compensate, but the box-to-box quality of Aránguiz is irreplaceable.
To further complicate things, there are doubts over the fitness of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both will start, but are unlikely to be 100%.
Brazil goes into this qualifying campaign with public opinion of the national team close to an all-time low. From the 7-1, Brazilian football went headfirst into Fifa-gate. Former president of the Brazilian FA (CBF) José Maria Marin was among the nine Fifa officials arrested in Zurich. He is currently awaiting extradition to the USA. His replacement at the CBF, Co-Conspirator #12, has refused to leave the country since Marin’s arrest.
Dunga’s team got people’s hopes up with an impressive run of wins in friendlies. Against such opposition as Colombia and France, Brazil flew to 10 wins in 10. But when push came to shove at the Copa América, Brazil crumbled.
To make matters worse, Neymar is suspended for Brazil’s two opening qualifiers after his involvement in a post-match scrap at the Copa. The past year has been ripe with examples of the national team’s dependency on the Barcelona forward. In a recent friendly against the USA, after testing a Neymar-less formation for only 45 minutes, Dunga capitulated and brought on his talisman to play the second half.
Colombia, also disappointing at the Copa América, go into this qualifying double-header desperate to reclaim some of the euphoria that surrounded their last World Cup qualifying campaign. They face Peru at home this evening in the intense Caribbean heat of Barranquilla.
Colombia’s coach José Pékerman has been forced into making changes to his starting eleven.
The big news is that Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez was cut from the squad due to injury. His replacement is likely to be Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres, a classic playmaker with wonderful vision, though he has arrived with fitness problems of his own.
Full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zúñiga, ever-present during Pékerman’s reign, both miss out. PSV’s Santiago Arias will get the nod at right-back, while Frank Fabra should start on the left despite making his international debut only last month.
The most interesting change will come in the centre of midfield. At the Copa América, with injuries to Abel Aguilar and Freddy Guarín, Pékerman played with two anchor men in midfield: Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia. Defensively they were excellent. When they faced Brazil, Sánchez silenced Neymar as he has done before with Lionel Messi. The problem was they had no players who could pass out of midfield. With no-one to step out of that zone and play important angled passes to their attackers, Colombia were left flat and predictable. They scored only one goal in the entire tournament – and that came from a set-piece.
Aguilar is still out, but Guarín returns. However, Pékerman is likely to ignore the Internazionale man and hand a start to 22 year old Gustavo Cuéllar, a sturdy midfielder who reads the game well and has a good eye for a forward pass. The fact Cuéllar plays his club football in Barranquilla with Junior also cannot hurt.