Just over eight months since Argentina were crowned World Champions for the third time in Qatar, the ‘Road to North America’ begins this week for the South American countries hoping to make it to the next World Cup.
As the ten countries which make up the CONMEBOL federation do not have to qualify for the Copa America which takes place in the United States in June 2024, there is logic as to why the federation begins qualifying for the World Cup early, as most countries, players and supporters prefer competitive fixtures than friendly internationals. Also, qualifying for the World Cup requires teams to play eighteen competitive fixtures so this has always been the schedule as there are quite a lot of fixtures to get through.
The ten countries will play each other in a home and away fixture, the top six will qualify directly for the World Cup and the seventh placed team will qualify for the FIFA intercontinental playoffs which will take place in March 2026.
The opening round of fixtures begin on Thursday with Paraguay hosting Peru in Ciudad del Este, Venezuela travel to face neighbours Colombia in Barranquilla and Argentina start in Buenos Aires at El Monumental against Ecuador.
On Friday, Uruguay are home to Chile in Montevideo and Brazil face Bolivia in Belém.
I want to look at some of the squads hoping to get off to a good start in this qualifying block, where each side will play twice in this international window.
The Albiceleste head into this qualifying campaign as reigning World Cup and Copa America champions. Lionel Scaloni has named a 32 man squad, the only notable absentees being Paolo Dybala of Roma and left back Marcos Acuña of Sevilla through injury.
Three Major League Soccer players are included in Lionel Messi of Inter Miami, Thiago Alamada who plays with Atlanta United and FC Dallas winger Alan Velasco.
Lisandro Martinez is in the squad despite going off injured in Manchester United’s loss at the Emirates to Arsenal on Sunday.
Argentina are stacked with quality, particularly in midfield where Alexis MacAllister, Rodrigo De Paul and Enzo Fernandez all shone in Qatar. Both MacAllister and Fernandez have also started the season well at club level with Liverpool and Chelsea while De Paul featured in Atletico Madrid’s first three games of the season, particularly impressive at Rayo Vallecano last time out.
Another player pushing for a starting place is Exequiel Palacios who has struck up a formidable midfield partnership with Granit Xhaka at Bayer Leverkusen, three wins from three in the Bundesliga for Xabi Alonso’s side.
35-year-old Angel Di Maria has three goals and an assist from the opening four league games on his return to Benfica and Lionel Messi at 36 has been contributing in Miami since he started in the MLS.
There is clearly competition for places within the group with Scaloni having to decide on who will lead the attack, Julian Alvarez or Lautaro Martinez the headline options. Alvarez has done well at Manchester City and has seen regular game time while Martinez has scored five goals in Serie A with Inter Milan.
A nice headache to have going into the first round of fixtures, if there’s such a thing as a nice headache.
🚨 BREAKING: Lionel Scaloni has named Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers squad. 🇦🇷
Dybala and Acuña OUT ⛔️🚑 pic.twitter.com/OGk7kwSVdq
— All About Argentina 🛎🇦🇷 (@AlbicelesteTalk) August 31, 2023
Argentina are away to Bolivia on Tuesday after Thursday night’s home game with Ecuador.
Brazil begin qualifying with Fernando Diniz, the current Fluminese coach also taking charge of the National Team on an interim basis.
With Carlo Ancelotti supposedly lined up to take on the job next summer prior to the Copa America when his contract finishes at Real Madrid, it will be interesting to see how the Selecao manage the first couple of games under Diniz who has led his Fluminese side to the Copa Libertadores semi finals after beating Olimpia of Paraguay recently.
🎙️ Fernando Diniz
“Football, for me, has a lot to do with life. So when people only analyze the tactical part, it's difficult. I’m barely moved by what is said anymore, only the tactical part is talked about and the end result. And football is not about that.” pic.twitter.com/Og5JRku3du
— All Things Brasil™ 🇧🇷 (@SelecaoTalk) September 4, 2023
In the press conferences this week, Diniz has spoken quite a lot about the overuse of tactical speak in the modern game and seems intent on sending out a side which will more than anything else endear the team to the public after a disappointing showing in Qatar.
The Brazil squad is loaded with quality throughout, Ederson and Alisson Becker are probably the Premier League’s best goalkeepers, Monaco fullbacks Caio Henrique and Vanderson are showing good form at club level, Marquinhos, Casemiro, Bruno Guimares give defensive cover while Rodrygo, Neymar, Richarlison, Raphinha and Gabriel Jesus can provide the craft in the attacking third.
Vinicius Junior misses out through injury, Raphinha called up as his replacement and Gabriel Jesus replaces Antony.
Brazil 🇧🇷 squad for their first two World Cup Qualifiers. Vini Jr has since pulled out due to injury. pic.twitter.com/62qgZlpZdd
— The International Window (@windowintlpod) August 29, 2023
Peru in Lima on Tuesday for Brazil after their home game with Bolivia on Friday night.
Marcelo Bielsa takes charge of La Celeste in his first job since he left Leeds in February 2022. The Argentine manager has opted for youth in his squad and has not called up the 36-year-old pair Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani for the first two games. Suarez has been in decent form at Gremio in Brazil scoring six times and with five assists in 17 league appearances.
Cavani has one goal in five appearances for Boca Juniors since arriving from Valencia over the summer.
💥"NADIE SE COMUNICÓ CONMIGO"
"ES IMPOSIBLE QUE DECIDA YO QUE EL CICLO DE SUÁREZ ESTÁ TERMINADO"
Fuego cruzado entre Bielsa y el Pistolero por la ausencia en la lista de Uruguay. pic.twitter.com/eR60Tcr1lH
— Fuera de Juego (@ESPN_FDJ) September 6, 2023
Suarez said that nobody called him or Cavani to explain the omission but also Diego Godin who has retired was not contacted by anyone from the federation to acknowledge his career as captain of the side for the last ten years. Suarez still remains available for selection however and is open to being included in the future.
Bielsa seemed intent to get the point across that he will never make the decision when a player retires, he will never do that, that is the decision of the player to make.
Bielsa has seemed up for the fight in the press conferences this week also questioning journalistic standards in the modern press earlier in the week.
📌 DATOS SELECCIÓN
Uruguay tendrá un promedio de edad de 23.6 años. El más bajo de los últimos 8 años si hablamos de una convocatoria para Fecha FIFA.
El mayor de este plantel será Sergio Rochet con 30 años.
El menor es Cristian Olivera con 21 años, categoría 2002.
— Rodrigo Romano (@RodrigoRomano76) September 4, 2023
The Uruguayan squad has an average age of 23 with 30-year-old goalkeeper Sergio Rochet the oldest member of the squad. Federico Valverde of Real Madrid and PSG new signing Manuel Ugarte at just 22 years of age will provide the drive in midfield, Darwin Nuñez who has been sharp for Liverpool since the start of the season will lead the attack with Maxi Gomez of Cadiz possibly beside him.
Ronald Araujo the Barcelona defender is a short term injury miss, while José Maria Gimenez looks like he may return for Atletico Madrid after the international break after being out long term.
Uruguay start at home to Chile on Friday before travelling to face Ecuador in Quito on Tuesday.
Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay head into qualifying all with the same objective of reaching the World Cup in four years but perhaps expectation levels vary to some degree amongst the three at this early stage.
Argentina will want to sustain and maintain their good form from the winter World Cup. It will be interesting to see how they set up at centre back, with Lisandro Martinez possibly carrying an injury from the weekend, will 35-year-old Nicolas Otamendi start in defence alongside Tottenham’s Cristian Romero? Further up the field, how Lionel Messi will be deployed, who has a goal and two assists in his first three MLS games with Inter Miami will be of interest. Are we entering the era where he plays less minutes with Argentina or will he continue to play consistently?
From a Brazilian perspective, how will Fernando Diniz set out his team to play and will they strike the balance between being solid defensively while also being creative and fun to watch from an attacking point of view? Is Neymar still the main focus in attack, is he physically capable to do that job now? Will Raphinha take the opportunity of his late replacement call up to solidify his starting place?
Probably most interesting to see will be how Marcelo Bielsa starts out with Uruguay. Already fielding questions about leaving out Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Bielsa will hope his side can hit the ground running and goals will be easy to come by. Suarez is currently leading all time goalscorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers on 29 goals, one ahead of Messi. That may have changed by this time next week.