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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In the name of objectivity

After a little post-World Cup break and time dedicated to other projects, this blogger-turned-author is returning to the comforting and cathartic confines of this humble blog. I am also working a lot more in Portuguese these days, so if you stumble across some indecipherable text with strange accents and excessive punctuation on this blog, please, forgive me. 

I have yet to put pen to paper regarding my opinion on the Brazilian FA (CBF)’s appointment of Dunga as the new (old) national team coach. There are two reasons for this: one, is that I simply did not find the time, and two, is that even though Dunga may have flattered to deceive in his first spell in the job, even though he failed miserably as the coach of Internacional and has not managed a team since and even though he embodies the process of uglification the once-revered Brazilian national team has underwent from 1982 until today, we must restrain ourselves and remember he has just been appointed. In the name of objectivity, Dunga’s second attempt at the Brazil job must be evaluated in isolation and on its own merit. The coach had yet to actually do anything as the manager of the Brazilian national team (except failing to remember the names of Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez [“that Colombian kid, Jimenez”] and Milan’s iconic coach Arrigo Sacchi [“I have spoken with Enrico Sacchi”]) – so, naturally, I remained quiet.

This week, Dunga announced his first Brazil squad (see below) to dispute two friendlies at the beginning of September, against James “Jimenez” Rodríguez’s Colombia and Ecuador. Again, it is still too early to praise or criticise his work, as the squad selection is impossible to judge when separated from the context of the matches that will follow. The list does, however, give some clues as to how the Brazil side of the Second Age of Dunga will behave on the pitch. And starved of interesting topics to write about, that’s more than enough of an invitation for this journalist to speak his mind.

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First impressions were largely encouraging, which was always going to be the case considering those who were skeptic about Dunga’s appointment had been creating wild nightmares for the past month, imagining Felipe Melo being handed the captain’s armband and Neymar being dropped in favour of someone more “disciplined”. The reality, as is so often the case, turned out not to be so dramatic after all.

Although Dunga has been cautious to put too much emphasis on the 7-1 defeat to Germany, towing the CBF party line, he did make a conscious effort to omit a significant group of the World Cup squad. From his 22-man group, only 10 are survivors from Felipão’s squad, with the obvious caveat that Thiago Silva is injured and unavailable.

However irrelevant those at the CBF seem to feel was the Germany loss, this process of renovation and blooding new players is important. Furthermore, Dunga did not take things too far, players such as Luiz Gustavo, Hulk, Oscar and Willian all remain in the squad despite coming in for criticism last month, and all four can play important roles in this new team.

Another positive aspect was the players called up for the centre of midfield. One of the biggest criticisms of Dunga’s first attempt at the national team job was his side’s complete lack of midfield articulation and creativity. While every other team in world football made sure to play midfielders who were able to defend and attack (and most importantly, complete a five-yard pass), Dunga’s Brazil put their faith in hard men, essentially converted centre-backs who knew how to tackle. In the World Cup in South Africa, while Spain had Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, Brazil had Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva.

As well as maintaining Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho and Ramires, all well-rounded midfielders, Dunga called up Elias of Corinthians (formerly of Sporting and Atlético Madrid) who is energetic, technical and a proficient marker. He also has the option of playing Oscar or Philippe Coutinho in that deeper role, all of these are positive signs.

That leads on to another interesting feature of this squad: the lack of a fixed centre-forward and an abundance of unpredictable attacking midfield threat. The selection indicates that Dunga may well revisit the work of ex-Brazil coach Mano Menezes, who experimented with a strikerless formation, playing Neymar as a mobile centre-forward. There is a worry that Dunga could try to shoehorn one of his players into a traditional centre-forward role, which would be an error. Neymar always needs the freedom to move into channels and drop deep when he wants to; Hulk’s effectiveness comes as a direct option down either flank; Diego Tardelli started his career as an out-and-out centre-forward but now plays much deeper, usually on the right; young Ricardo Goulart is an extremely interesting talent, but already at Cruzeiro he has shown he is not a pure centre-forward, instead he is more of an attacking midfielder, arriving late into the box to score.

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With some new faces and Neymar at centre-forward, a potential XI to start the game against Colombia.

Last month I mentioned that only once has a country won the World Cup with a squad made up of a majority of foreign-based players (France in 1998) and it seems to have really resonated with Dunga, who is, of course, a long-time reader of this blog. The coach has made a conscious effort to select more domestic-based outfield players and has called up some interesting names and perhaps missed a few.

All of the domestic-based players in the squad have done enough individually to deserve the callup, although in some cases I’m unsure about the long-term benefit of some of the players being involved in the setup. It is hard to see Diego Tardelli, Atlético Mineiro’s striker-turned-playmaker, still being involved in the team come next year’s Copa América. Even Elias and Éverton Ribeiro, excellent as they are in Brazil, give the impression that they could suffer with the competition for places in those midfield spots.

Corinthians’ centre-back Gil, especially with the absence of Thiago Silva, strikes me as a wise selection. He has some modest experience in Europe with French side Valenciennes, but has improved greatly since his return to Brazil, with great positioning, technique and a threat at set-pieces.

I was delighted to see Cruzeiro’s Ricardo Goulart get the call, as he is certainly a player who could go on to do great things for Brazil. As alluded to earlier, he is an attacking midfielder who likes to play just off a principal striker. He is clever, strong, good in the air, has a natural eye for goal and he keeps getting better and better. Brazil do not have any other player in that same mould, so seeing him in the national team setup is exciting.