Football at its best

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.

 

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Days seven and eight: Excuses and abdications

I had planned to write something yesterday about the Seleção, but other commitments (and the excellent games of football) made that impossible. So here are days seven and eight mashed together.

A goalkeeper receiving the man of the match award is usually the sign of a disappointing game of football. Tuesday’s goalless draw between Brazil and Mexico was an exception to this rule, as although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa was the standout performer, there was plenty of entertainment to be had in Fortaleza.

Brazil failed to convince for the second game in a row, but the draw means that they will almost certainly finish top of their group. My initial reaction to the match was that Brazil were far from impressive, but there was no need for panic. Mexico proved to be tougher opposition than expected and international tournaments are all about hitting top form at the right time. Beating Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon would count for nothing if they were to play poorly in the last 16.

What worried me, however, was Felipão’s reaction. Knowing that the Brazilian public is among the most polemic when it comes to football, the coach correctly praised their opposition, but used Ochoa’s performance as an excuse and claimed Brazil had improved from the Croatia match. To be more precise, Felipão said the Seleção had improved by ten percent.

ESPN pounced on that statement, spitting out facts to disprove the coach. They had more possession against Croatia, more shots on goal, more corners, less fouls committed … Statistics, of course, do not tell the whole story, but their decrease in productivity was clear. Having a poor match against Mexico is excusable, refusing to recognise that is not.

Without Hulk, who had picked up a knock (although claimed he was 100% fit), Felipão started with Ramires on the right of midfield and played a 4-1-4-1 system, looking to protect against Mexico’s wide threat. Ramires struggled, picked up a yellow card and was substituted at half-time. Instead of bringing on a midfielder to reclaim possession in the middle, Felipão chose to introduce Bernard, a quick winger, and Brazil lost control of the midfield.

Mexico were once again tactically impressive. They manipulated spaces well and neutralised Brazil’s threats, all they need is to improve their end product. Of their 22 attempts on goal in their first two matches, they have still scored only once. Croatia, their main rivals for qualification, have scored five goals after 29 attempts.

Kudos to Australia for giving us one of the best matches of the tournament so far. We are now so used to seeing teams parking the bus against technically superior sides, that it has almost become the only option to limited teams to approach such matches. In their game against Holland, Australia reminded us there is another way.

Although most popular sports media were sure Australia would sit back and defend, nothing we saw in the match against Chile suggested that. They pushed high up the pitch and pressed Holland in their own half. Their fitness and energy was extremely impressive and they were first to almost every ball.

Louis van Gaal got it wrong by going with the 3-5-2 system. He had trained a 4-3-3 at the weekend, but decided to start with the same team that played against Spain. There were two possible reasons for his choice: either he agreed with the hypothesis that Australia would play defensively, or he did not want to change the team that was so successful in beating the world champions.

The positional matchup worked completely in Australia’s favour. Their attack pushed forward, forcing the Dutch wing-backs Blind and Janmaat to remain deep, while Jedinak marked Sneijder out of the first half. Robben and Van Persie still threatened in attack, but their supply lines had been cut.

Australia’s full-backs were left unopposed and were two of the most important players in the first half. Right-back Ryan McGowan provided the gorgeous slanted pass that Tim Cahill volleyed into the net. A better goal in this World Cup will be hard to come by.

The turning point in the match came just before the interval with the injury to centre-back Bruno Martins Indi. Van Gaal decided to bring on forward Memphis Depay and switched to the 4-3-3 they had trained previously. Both of their full-backs were freed, Wesley Sneijder began to get his foot on the ball and Holland controlled the remainder of the match. I wonder if van Gaal would have made the same change had Martins Indi remained unscathed.

As Felipe VI took the throne in Madrid, another Spanish reign came to an end on Wednesday. Not since Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín won Chile’s independence in 1821 have Spain been defeated by their former colony. Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile defeated Vicente del Bosque’s Spain and the world champions were eliminated at the group stage.

The first half was frantic, Chile were a step quicker than their opponents all over the pitch. They were intelligent in their pressing, neither of Spain’s creative midfielders were given any time to play and Xabi Alonso was particularly poor. The 2-0 lead the Chileans took into the interval was enough to win the match and seal their place in the last 16.

Internacional’s Charles Aránguiz was particularly impressive, his defensive performance forced Alonso to be substituted at half time, while his forward bursts into attack were crucial for both Chilean goals. After setting up their first goal of the tournament against Australia, another forward run set up Vargas’ opening goal yesterday and Aránguiz scored the second himself from a similar area.

Spain dominated the second half, but they never looked like scoring. Chile dropped deeper and closed out the result.

Before yesterday, Spain had not lost two consecutive internationals since 2006, before their period of domination between 2008 and 2012. The decline was perhaps predictable as their spine: Casillas, Piqué, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta all had underwhelming seasons at club level. Above all, what goes up must come down, extremes tend to regress to the mean. Either way, this was a grisly and undignified end for one of the greatest international teams in football history.