Amid all the fuss about the upcoming Copa America and where it will be hosted, it is easy to forget that there are two rounds of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers to be played in South America. These, though, are the more important games.
Originally these dates were set aside for pre-Copa friendlies. But because of the pandemic, South America is way behind. Only four rounds of fixtures have been played. Another 14 have to be squeezed in before the end of March next year. And so there is one round this Thursday and Friday, and another next Tuesday, before the teams head to Brazil for the Copa.
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This puts South American international football in a curious position. There have been no competitive matches since last November. Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador managed to play friendlies in March. Everyone else is getting together for the first time in seven months. And now the warm-up matches are more important than the tournament that follows. The Copa America is clearly secondary. Everyone's priority is to make it to Qatar at the end of next year.
South American confederation CONMEBOL has four automatic slots in the 2022 World Cup, which begins on Nov. 21 next year, with the team finishing fifth having to go through a playoff. So far, three teams have pulled away from the pack at the top of the standings, and two of them face each other in the only match being played on Friday when Brazil host Ecuador in Porto Alegre.
With four wins out of four, Brazil found a blend last year that was better than anything they had done since the end of the previous set of World Cup qualifiers. The 2018 quarterfinal defeat to Belgium in Russia left coach Tite confused. His side had been too open down the left flank. He responded with a more cautious approach from his full-backs, but it never looked entirely convincing even though Brazil won the 2019 Copa on home soil. Since then he has tried something new, freeing attacking left-back Renan Lodi to push forward with midfielder Douglas Luiz covering the space behind him.
But Douglas Luiz is suspended for this game -- which could offer a glimmer of hope to Ecuador, who are strong on the counter-attack. Under Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro, Ecuador opened up with a very defensive display and a 1-0 defeat away to Argentina, followed by three thrilling victories. They will be very wary of Brazil's attacking threat, and can be expected to be cautious once more. Realistically, they will feel that anything they pick up from this match will be a bonus, and their aim will be to move on with confidence intact. Then again, Brazil have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home, a record that has to fall one day, and after so long out of action they could be more vulnerable. But a Brazil defeat would be an even bigger shock than the surprise news last Monday that the country would be hosting the Copa America.
The other team doing well are Argentina, who under Lionel Scaloni have made great strides since the 2019 Copa, when they lost to Brazil in the semifinals. Looking more like a team than at any time since they reached the final of the Centenary Copa in the United States five years ago, they have put together three wins and a draw, and are firm favourites to chalk up another victory at home to Chile on Thursday night.
Not all of their problems have disappeared, though. There is still a dearth of talent in central defence. But will Chile be able to test the weakness? New coach Martin Lasarte is handicapped by the loss of midfield powerhouse Arturo Vidal, who has been hospitalised after testing positive for COVID-19. And the big problem is the one that previous coach Reinaldo Rueda wrestled with for two years before choosing to resign: Chile have not developed players with the quality of the generation that won back-to-back Copas in 2015-16, and are still dependent on the old guard.
Rueda jumped ship to take charge of his native Colombia. He goes straight in at the deep end with a crunch match first up away to Peru, the game that closes Thursday's action. Colombia have four points, and suffered a disastrous two rounds of heavy defeats in November. Peru have only one point, and desperately need a win to stay in touch.
Another high-pressure clash comes earlier that same day, between Uruguay and Paraguay. Both sides are in midtable with six points. The winners will join the leading pack, while the losers will slip back amongst the trailers. It will be interesting to see Uruguay's approach. Edinson Cavani is suspended, and a number of other strikers are out injured. This could be a chance, then, for coach Oscar Washington Tabarez to come off his usual 4-4-2 system. Uruguay could field more of their talented young central midfielders, and have the option to use wingers either side of Luis Suarez. It should have been an opportunity for playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta to be used in his favourite position, through the middle. But he, too, has gone down with COVID-19.
The other game, the first of the round, is between Bolivia and Venezuela. Bottom-of-the-table Bolivia have just one point, and all their hopes are pinned on winning this game. Venezuela, the only South American side never to have made it to a World Cup, are disappointed to have just three points thus far. And they will find things very difficult in the prevailing conditions.
Some of the European coaches to have worked in South America recently have been flummoxed by the challenges provided by altitude, where the ball travels more quickly through the rarefied air and unaccustomed players are gasping for breath and unable to play their normal game. Last November the vastly experienced Carlos Queiroz lost his job with Colombia after an embarrassing 6-1 defeat in Ecuador's high-altitude capital of Quito. Queiroz is Portuguese, like Venezuela's boss Jose Peseiro, who now faces the challenge of the more extreme altitude of La Paz. The game will be a test of how well he has prepared for the type of encounter that makes World Cup qualification in South America so competitive and so absorbing.