Key Takeaways From CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers
Four things that we learned from the latest double header of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers completed on Tuesday.
CHILE IN CRISIS
Having backed up their maiden Copa America triumph in 2015 by successfully defending their title in the tournament’s centenary edition last year, Chile were considered a relatively safe bet to qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup.
But Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side will be happy just to secure a playoff berth after a shock 3-0 home loss to Paraguay and a 1-0 defeat to Bolivia in the past week.
Even if they win their last two qualifiers against Ecuador and Brazil next month, the Roja will need other results to go their way before booking their tickets to Russia.
Pizzi will be looking for more from his star midfielder Arturo Vidal in the final two qualifiers. The 30-year-old Bayern Munich player looked a shadow of his best against Paraguay and Bolivia, having likely been distracted by his row with Chile’s media.
Vidal last week accused local journalists of “trying to stain his image” after reports he was involved in an incident at a casino that required police intervention. Police and Vidal both denied the allegations.
After the loss to Paraguay, in which he scored an own goal, Vidal tweeted: “Now those tetchy [people] we have in our country must be happy! But don’t worry, I’m getting closer to leaving.”
COUTINHO FIGHTING FIT
There were doubts about whether Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho would take any part in Brazil’s qualifiers, having not played since late July amid speculation linking him with Barcelona.
The official line from Liverpool was that Coutinho was sidelined by a back injury.
But the 25-year-old, who reportedly submitted a transfer request last month in a bid to force a move to the Camp Nou, showed no signs of discomfort for Brazil.
Last Thursday, he came off the bench to score in his team’s 2-0 victory over Ecuador and he also looked sharp after being introduced as a late substitute in the Selecao’s 1-1 draw with Colombia on Tuesday.
Both Coutinho and Liverpool will now have some explaining to do to Liverpool’s fans, many of whom feel let down by the Brazilian’s apparent refusal to play for the club last month.
PERU’S NEW STAR
Peru needed to win both of their matches to revive their qualification hopes. And win they did. Thursday’s 2-1 home victory over Bolivia was followed by another 2-1 result in their favor against Ecuador in Quito on Tuesday.
Ricardo Gareca’s team also unearthed a new star in Edison Flores, a 23-year-old attacking midfielder who plays his club football for Denmark’s Aalborg BK.
Flores scored in both matches, both with left-footed strikes from outside the box. His goal against Bolivia at Lima’s Estadio Monumental, when he deftly intercepted an errant defensive pass before lashing an unstoppable shot into the top left corner, was of the highest quality.
It seems only a matter of time before Flores, a former Villarreal B team player, is signed by a bigger European club.
More importantly for Peru, the team is now fourth, inside CONMEBOL’s direct qualification places for Russia.
MESSI NOT A MIRACLE WORKER
For all his brilliance, Lionel Messi cannot carry Argentina on his own. The 30-year-old was the only Albiceleste player that looked like scoring in a 0-0 draw against Uruguay on Thursday, an individual performance described as “enormous” by coach Jorge Sampaoli.
The 30-year-old was again his team’s most potent attacking threat against Venezuela on Tuesday but lacked support from his teammates.
Paulo Dybala and, particularly, Mauro Icardi struggled to make any meaningful impact in both matches as part of Argentina’s attacking trident.
Sampaoli will need to think long and hard about his squad selection for Argentina’s remaining qualifiers against Peru and Paraguay, which the Albiceleste must win to be assured of a World Cup place.
Foremost in his plans will be finding an attacking system that can work effectively with Messi. It would not surprise to see Sampaoli recall Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain and hand an opportunity to Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero.