While most Europeans are pre-occupied with qualifying for next summers European Championship, the road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has already started for South America. The journey to Rio may be short in terms of distance but competition to secure one of the four automatic spots will be fierce. If South American football has taught us anything, it’s the age old cliche of never underestimating your opponents. The Copa America this summer was filled with tales of the so-called lesser sides overcoming the more established names on the continent. Venezuela’s defiance against Chile, Peru’s victory over impressive Colombia and Paraguay’s stunning penalty win over holders Brazil to name just a few talking points.
Even if Brazil weren’t hosting 2014′s tournament Uruguay would still have to be favourites to top the section. A semi-final appearance in 2010 combined with their fifteenth Copa America title this summer makes them not only the best team on the continent but one of the most in-form teams in the world. Thanks to the tactical nous of head coach Oscar Tabarez, he and his team will go into qualification with their eyes firmly locked on top spot.
It was Uruguay who opened up qualifying with an early kick-off at home to Bolivia. The fifteen time Copa America winners opened up against the less fancied Bolivians with a 4-2 victory in Montevideo. Bolivia haven’t been the greatest in recent years and if it wasn’t for their altitude advantage at home they would be more open to a beating than they usually are. The scoreline possibly flattered Bolivia but they can take some heart that there’s a long way to go, although it would be a major shock should the side from La Paz be making travel plans in 2014.
Argentina’s problems have been well documented, with Sergio Batista sacked as head coach after a Copa America exit to Uruguay, Alejandro Sabella has been brought in with Messi as captain. But Argentina still need to find an answer to the most obvious question, where does Messi play? Whether Sabella finds the answer and fits Messi into his perfect role for la albiceleste during the qualification stage won’t prove crucial in qualifying. They should qualify anyway, but finding the correct place for Messi and others could be crucial. Argentina need to start playing as a team rather than a set of individuals each yearning for the spotlight.
Buenos Aires was the setting for Sabella’s opening game against Chile and what a perfect start it was. Despite the change in management there was certainly an air of caution before the match against Chile. But a swift hat-trick for Higuain and one for Messi assured an early three points for la albiceleste despite a goalkeeper error from Andujar allowing Matias Fernandez to pull one back for Chile.
It should be clear in Argentina that a change in manager won’t guarantee a change in results and playing style, but this was certainly the best that Argentina have played in quite a while. The exclusion of ‘el jugador del pueblo’ Carlos Tevez (the people’s player) will be a positive after he undermined Batista and is the perfect example of ‘individualism’ that has plauged Argentina for a number of years.
Chile on the other hand needed to bounce back from a less than great Copa showing. This isn’t a result that will be devastating to them in the long run and were perhaps unfortunate with the scoreline but with a returning Alexis Sanchez added with the talent Claudio Borghi already has at his disposal and la roja will be there or thereabouts come crunch time. A home match against Peru is up next followed by a daunting trip to Montevideo in November.
Peru recorded a home victory over Paraguay and it was that man again Paolo Guerrero who helped himself to a double in the 2-0 victory. Guerrero was the Copa’s top goalscorer and he continued his fine form for la rojiblanca here. It was a poor start for Paraguay who must have had high hopes following their good showing in the Copa. Much like Chile both sides will be in the group chasing Argentina and Uruguay but I wonder whether Peru and Paraguay have as much talent and squad depth at their disposal as Chile and Colombia. This summers showing tells me I’m wrong but how often will teams raise their performance levels over a short period when compared to a long drawn out one like the CONMEBOL qualifiers.
The final game of the weekend took place in Quito Ecuador, where the hosts defeated Venezuela 2-0. Venezuela, the cinderella of the continent had high hopes of qualifying before this game kicked off but after Ayovi and later Benitez struck for Ecuador a sense of realism is beginning to hit after the highs of the Copa.
Colombia open their account on Tuesday with a trip to Bolivia. Chile host Peru, Paraguay welcome continent champions Uruguay and la vinotinto Venezuela take on Sabella’s Argentina.
Uruguay and Argentina should take the top two spots, after that it’s a real battle for the other two spaces and the play-off for fifth spot. The romantic in me would love to see Venezuela finally make it to a finals. They are the only team in the continent yet to make a World Cup and after the progress they have made in the last few years a World Cup spot would be a great reward for all the hard work that has gone on to make the country competitive.
Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru will all have a say and even Bolivia may sneak a play off spot if their home form can see them through. Whatever the case may be, we are in for a long, gritty and somewhat painful qualification.
Twitter – @Craig_J_Shields.