The Race to Brazil – Argentina plus three

by Stefan Kelly

Falcao ColombiaWith thanks to the World Cup being on their home continent next summer, the usual defeat to Brazil is a morale dropping fixture qualification chasers don’t have to face this campaign, and with the World Cup hosts out of the question CONMEBOL (South American football’s governing body) has seen its most hotly contested and exciting qualification group for years.

This round could prove most important to the group as a whole. Third placed Colombia, the form side on the continent, have the opportunity to close the gap on first placed Argentina. Fifth placed Venezuela, have the tough test away in the heights of Bolivia, where a win would extend their advantage over Uruguay in contention for the play-off spot with Venezuela even having a chance of entering fourth and an automatic qualification spot. Uruguay being the side remaining idle for this round given there are a nice uneven nine countries since Brazil’s automatic entry to their own competition.

Trying to hold la Vinotinto back in fifth will be the current holders of the illusive fourth position, Chile, who away at Paraguay have the best chance of anyone in this round to take three points against the last place side who were actually rather impressive in South Africa. Lastly, second placed Ecuador, coming off the back of a couple of rather unsuccessful friendlies, will look to go another step to confirming their path to Brazil with a win away to Peru, who with four points between them and the play-off spot, have to start their claw back now to stand any chance of being at their first world cup for 32 years.

Now let’s place a focus on the clash between two of the best international set-ups in the world at the moment, and possible two genuine world cup contenders. Buenos Aires plays host to Argentina versus Colombia, two sides with floods of attacking quality while they also are both beginning to solidify a defence which has caused question marks in the past.

Colombia are inching closer to qualification and should be able to all but guarantee it with two wins in the next week or so, so Los Cafeteros (the coffee growers) should feel free enough to really go all out against Argentina and show the world once more how they’ve progressed in such a small space of time under the Argentina coach Jose Pekerman, who is facing the side he managed at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Argentina, you’d imagine will still feel the more confident of the two. Deservedly lying top of the group, Argentina’s form has been unmatched by any of their competitors, with the attacking talents of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain looking better than ever for their national side.

At the other end, Colombia’s front wave of attack will look to match their southern opponent in terms of goals. Radamel Falcao Garcia is of course the head of their offensive efforts, another player in better form internationally than ever before. The question is who he will be flanked by. Pekerman has proved to be versatile for an international coach, being willing to change his set up game by game. He has the striking options of Teo Guttierez, a crowd favourite and frequent starter, although without the class and goalscoring of Porto’s Jackson Martinez, a forward who has proved to be too similar to Falcao for his own good. Following closely behind in the striking ranks are another two to have enjoyed brilliant seasons in Europe, Udinese’s pacey Luis Muriel and Bruges’ impressive Carlos Bacca. Whoever the pairing may be, they’ll be sure to be supplied by the brilliant creative axis of classic number ten Macnelly Torres and the Monaco bound James Rodriguez, one of the world’s most exciting talents.

This qualifier that will signal exactly where both sides are at relating to their progression towards success next summer is looking like it could be one of the games of the year, and will be sure to feature 22 players of the highest quality.

It took Lukas Podolski a mere eight seconds to fire Germany ahead against Ecuador in their friendly last Wednesday, a slightly hilarious oddity resulting from a defensive mishap. Surely it couldn’t simply reflect how Ecuador would perform that night? Well, in fact it did, with the side behind only Argentina in the qualifying standings conceding four goals to a far superior German side (minus both Dortmund and Bayern players) in just the opening 22 minutes of the game. This was followed by the cooling of any German pressure and Ecuador managing to nick two goal against a side who weren’t really trying anymore.

This is not the ideal way for Reinaldo Rueda’s side to come in to the first competitive round of fixtures for months. You may question how a side so poor against Germany could find themselves on the verge of qualification, well it is certainly not a reflection on a poor standard of international football in South America. In fact, Ecuador have been absolutely brilliant, consistently overpowering opponents and controlling games against lesser sides.

Powered by the front two of Christian Benitez and Felipe Caicedo and fuelled by the creative brilliance of Jefferson Montero and Manchester United wide man Antonio Valencia, Ecuador might not match the excitement and intensity of Argentina and Colombia, but they are masters at qualifying, continuously knocking up 1 and 2-0 wins. Peru, on the other hand, may consider themselves unlucky regarding their standing in the group. Delivering some rather impressive performances for a country their size in football terms, Peru have some rather dangerous attacking options to choose from for a game they really need to win to gain some points on Venezuela and Uruguay. Paolo Guerrero (Corinthians) has enjoyed life back on his home continent, after leaving Germany where he had spent his entire career. I’m not sure what it is about Germany and Peru, but the country that gave birth to Eurodance sensation Cascada is also where Peru’s two other main threats play their football, Jefferson Farfan of Schalke and Claudio Pizarro who just enjoyed a surprisingly good season with Bayern.

Ecuador versus Peru may not be the game everyone has their eye on, but it might just be the one that causes the biggest impact on the group as a whole.

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers – Round 13

Fixtures:

Argentina vs Colombia

Bolivia vs Venezuela

Paraguay vs Chile

Peru vs Ecuador

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