Scrambling for spots

With Tuesday’s dead rubber draw between Peru and Bolivia, the South American qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup came to a close. Compared to that of other continental confederations around the globe, the current qualifying system used by Conmebol is the most entertaining, the most competitive and it serves as the best preparation for major tournaments.

All ten of Conmebol’s member nations (nine this time around, with Brazil qualified as World Cup hosts) compete in one group, and the guaranteed fixture list of home and away games provides a stern test for the better nations and a superb chance for development for the weaker nations. For proof, one needs look no further than Ecuador and Venezuela, once the continent’s whipping-boys. Ecuador has now qualified for its third World Cup since 2002 and although Venezuela narrowly missed out on qualification, their steady progress makes them strong candidates to make the 2018 finals.

In the absence of Brazil, Argentina unsurprisingly topped the group. Seeing as they will be the “home” team in most of the southern venues at next year’s tournament, and considering their wealth of attacking talent (including Lionel Messi, someone you may have heard of), Argentina must be considered among the favourites to win in Brazil.

Colombia finished in second place and qualify for their first World Cup finals since France 98. Much has been made of this Colombia side (with good reason when you consider their front three of James Rodríguez, Teo Gutiérrez and Radamel Falcao), but comparisons with the golden generation of the early 90s are unfair and invalid. Not only did that team have more quality in more areas of the field, they also had to deal with inhumane external pressure that culminated in the tragic murder of el Caballero del Fútbol Andrés Escobar after their elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

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Speaking exclusively about matters on the pitch, the current Colombia team is undoubtedly talented, but also dangerously imbalanced – a trade-off for having the superb Radamel Falcao in attack. While Falcao is probably the world’s best penalty box finisher, he is often only as good as the service he receives. When Colombia’s Argentinian coach José Pékerman started to fill his side with attacking options to feed Falcao, they started winning. However, this onus on attack leaves them vulnerable in defence, even more so with their creaking centre-back corps.

The 3-3 draw against Chile in Barranquilla was a microcosm of this current side. Pékerman started the match with three central defenders in an attempt to contain Chile’s attacking threats, but he still selected James Rodríguez and Teo to support Falcao. The result was a completely disjointed team, isolated forwards and a back line that Chile’s forwards repeatedly outpaced, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

With the Barranquilla crowd spurring them on, Colombia came out fighting for the second half and overloaded Chile, playing a physical, high-intensity style. Amazingly, they drew the match 3-3.

Chile, who qualified in third place, suffer from many of the same problems. Under Jorge Sampaoli they play the most attractive attacking football on the continent, but are frequently undone in defence.

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Sampaoli rose to prominence as the coach of Universidad de Chile, who entertained the continent in 2011 and -12 with their relentless attacking and haphazard defending. Sampaoli – a cross between Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and a furious chimpanzee – has translated that system word for word to the national team, and they are sure to be the neutral’s favourite next year.

Looking at World Cup 2014 odds, Chile could be a good outside bet for reaching the semi-finals.

Perhaps unfairly regarded as a surprise entrant, Ecuador sealed the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot. Their Colombian coach Reginaldo Rueda has built a solid unit capable of causing problems to any team, spearheaded by excellent wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero.

With the tragic death of Cristián “Chucho” Benítez earlier in the year, Ecuador had to overcome a particularly tough hurdle in order to qualify. Besides being a close friend to many of the squad and an irreplaceable dressing room presence, Chucho was also crucial to Ecuador’s style on the pitch.

Playing as a second striker behind Felipe Caicedo, Chucho would work the channels and frustrate defences, often creating chances out of nothing. Ecuador have no-one else in that mould, and while they struggled to adept emotionally and technically, they very nearly lost their place in the top four.

Current Copa América holders Uruguay finished in fifth place and will play off against Jordan for a spot in Brazil. Despite a disappointing campaign, I fully expect them to qualify, but I will talk more about them another day.

With teams around the world scrambling for places in the group stage draw, hosts Brazil and their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari are putting the finishing touches to their preparation. The Seleção played two friendlies during this international break, two 2-0 wins over South Korea and Zambia in the Far East.

It is clear that the side that won the Confederations Cup in July will form the base of their team at the World Cup, with several fringe players fighting for the final spots in the 23-man squad. These friendlies have more or less confirmed the presence of Jefferson and Diego Cavalieri as back-up goalkeepers, Dante and Dedé as the reserve centre-backs and Maxwell as Marcelo’s understudy at left-back.

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Liverpool’s defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva made an excellent return to the national side, and he may be in with a chance of a starting berth ahead of Luiz Gustavo. It doesn’t look like good news for Lucas Moura or Alexandre Pato though, as both were disappointing, slated by Brazilian journalists and will probably miss the final cut.

By my reckoning, there are only two available spots in Brazil’s World Cup squad: a centre-forward (most likely Fred on his return from injury, possibly Diego Costa) and a reserve attacking midfielder. If I were Felipão, I would be looking at either Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho or Atlético-MG’s Diego Tardelli.

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Clássicos

One of the more frustrating clichés in football is that on derby day, the form book goes out of the window. Derbies are different, but only because of the increased levels of pressure. The way in which the players deal with this pressure often has an impact on the final result, though that applies to any match against any opponent.

When faced with the prospect of playing against their rivals, some professionals are able to build themselves up mentally and use the increased adrenaline to produce higher levels of substances that enhance performance, like a form of emotional doping.

Others can be overwhelmed with nerves and opt instead to hide on the field, afraid of making a mistake. There is a Japanese proverb that says “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”.

This weekend in Brazil we were treated to three clássicos that did a good job of illustrating exactly why playing your rivals is so important.

On a historic run of eight defeats in a row, São Paulo managed to stop the rot with a 0-0 draw against Corinthians. With confidence at an all-time low and coach Paulo Autuori’s job hanging by a thread (after only four matches in charge), São Paulo’s prime objective was not to concede and therefore, to avoid a ninth consecutive defeat.

Autuori dropped World Cup winner Lúcio from the centre of defence after a series of bad performances and repeated indiscipline. Though it is impossible to doubt Lúcio’s quality, São Paulo looked more secure without him. His absence allowed Rafael Tolói to return to the right centre-back role where he is most comfortable, and it gave their defence more shape and discipline.

São Paulo started the match with three defensive midfielders and though they did have space to attack into (Jádson and Fabrício often had two-on-one situations in the middle against Corinthians midfielder Ralf), they did not seem interested in bringing numbers forward.

Corinthians were in control for most of the match and kept the play in São Paulo’s half, but they didn’t create many clear chances and appeared to believe a goal would come along naturally. Alexandre Pato was once again disappointing coming off the bench, and many in Brazil are now coming to terms with the fact that he will never become the excellent forward they once thought he was.

Corinthians appear to be on auto-pilot mode in the Brasileirão and they have dropped far more points than expected at this early stage. They will most likely focus heavily on winning the Copa do Brasil to ensure a place in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.

It wasn’t another defeat, but São Paulo have now gone twelve matches without a win, and they now embark on a trip to Europe and Asia to play the Audi Cup and Suruga Bank Championship respectively, facing teams like Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Milan and Benfica. That winless streak will probably go on a bit longer.

In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro battered Atlético-MG 4-1, only days after watching them lift the Copa Libertadores trophy. Still in the party mind-set, Atlético fielded a largely second-string side, with only Júnior César and Michel remaining from the team that beat Olimpia in midweek.

Often when a squad is as close-knit and successful as Atlético’s, the reserve players are able to step into the first team and perform well, having trained side-by-side with the starters on a daily basis. However, Atlético’s sluggish centre-back partnership of Gilberto Silva and Rafael Marques struggled against a dangerous Cruzeiro team.

Since last season, Cruzeiro have conducted some superb business in the transfer market. Dedé, Nílton, Souza, Éverton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all top-level Série A players, and their attacking unit has plenty of depth with Luan, Ricardo Goulart and Martinuccio keeping the starters on their toes. The signing of Júlio Baptista could also be decisive, and If they can keep him fit he should do well on his return to Brazil.

At this stage, Cruzeiro is one of the three or four teams who has what it takes to win the Brazilian championship.

The third match, Flamengo versus Botafogo, was a fascinating game in the new Maracanã. However the event raised further questions about the “elitization” of the Brazilian game, about which I would like to go into more detail tomorrow.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Ecuadorian forward Cristián Benítez, who died today in Qatar, aged just 27. Benítez was a wonderful, intelligent and powerful striker who could lead the line on his own and was a class-act on and off the pitch. Earlier this year I suggested he would be reaching his peak just in time to lead his nation in the World Cup in Brazil next year, so it is hard to fathom that he is now no longer with us. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and team-mates.

Adiós Chucho, you will always be remembered.

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