South America’s players have a touching love and respect for the continent’s World Cup qualification campaign, probably the most competitive on the planet.
The players, however, are clearly reluctant to play in the Copa America, due to kick off on Sunday. This is especially pertinent for new tournament hosts Brazil, but applies to the other teams as well. They want to make public their position — which could range from playing under protest to an outright boycott. But they are holding their collective tongue until Tuesday night, until the final whistle has blown on round six of the current qualifiers.
For the next few hours, then, they will attempt to focus on the immediate task ahead, of picking up points on the way to Qatar.
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Brazil and Argentina have come out of the blocks fast — often one of them gets in early trouble and has to dig their way out during the course of the campaign. Not this time, so far. This might be the round when problems start to appear.
For Brazil, that is purely relative — unless the unrest in the camp takes on such a proportion that coach Tite is sacked and some of the players walk out in sympathy. But whatever happens on Tuesday night, Brazil are guaranteed to be top of the table with a third of the campaign played, even if they lose away to Paraguay. Asuncion is never an easy place to visit and, along with Brazil and Argentina, Paraguay are the other unbeaten team in the field. They have only one victory to their credit, added to four draws. Two are disappointing — home games against Peru and Bolivia, fixtures they would expect to win. The other two are encouraging — away to Argentina and Uruguay, where a draw is much more a point gained than two dropped.
This leads to an obvious conclusion about the Paraguay side. They are happier with a defend and counter-attack model than in those matches where they are supposed to take the initiative. Coach Eduardo Berizzo is a former Marcelo Bielsa assistant, and had hoped to implant a more pro-active style. The stats would seem to show that he has not yet succeeded, and that his Paraguay side will almost certainly seek to close down the game and look for the pace of Miguel Almiron on the break.
Brazil needed to dig deep into their reserves of patience to beat Ecuador on Friday, and Tuesday’s game might be similar.
Argentina, meanwhile, have made the long trip to Barranquilla near the Caribbean coast where they take on a Colombia side who are under new management. Reinaldo Rueda enjoyed a highly satisfactory debut on Thursday, coming back from Peru with a 3-0 triumph. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this game is the test to which it subjects the Argentine defence. Centre-back has been a problem position for a while. Atalanta’s Cristian Romero made a sound debut there on Thursday at home to Chile, but was not under a great deal of pressure. But now he has to cope with his Serie A club mates, the fearsomely strong Duvan Zapata and the quick and mobile Luis Muriel.
It is unlikely that Argentina will repeat Thursday’s line up and start with two wingers. A better plan would surely be to restore the third player in the centre of the field and attempt to control possession from there, starving the Colombian strikers of service. Whatever happens, Argentina will end the night in the top three — four sides go through automatically to the World Cup, with the team finishing fifth going into a playoff — but they could find themselves overtaken by Ecuador.
ESPN FC’s Ale Moreno cannot find the logic in Copa America actually taking place in Brazil in just over a week’s time.
After emerging with credit from Friday’s defeat to Brazil, Ecuador will now switch their model of play, with less emphasis on marking and more stress on attacking variations. They are at home to Peru, bottom of the table and undergoing a crisis of morale. At the altitude of Quito, Ecuador will seek to throw their attacking full-backs forward to combine with the wingers, overwhelming the Peruvians down the flanks. A possible worry for coach Gustavo Alfaro, though, was the fact that playmaker Angel Mena was not able to make an impact against Brazil. Mena was the surprise hit of last year’s four rounds, and Alfaro will hope he has not hit a patch of poor form. The worries of Peru coach Ricardo Gareca are far greater, and another defeat would make it very difficult for his team to dream of a second consecutive World Cup.
There is also some desperation from Venezuela, who went into the campaign dreaming of making their World Cup debut. One win and four defeats is not an encouraging return, and so their game at home to Uruguay is vital. It is an intriguing clash: South America’s newest force against its oldest. Uruguay have had to learn to take Venezuela seriously in recent years, and would be the happier of the two sides if this one ends in a draw.
The night ends with Chile at home to Bolivia. For the Chileans this is a must-win — and Bolivia have already dropped so many home points that they need to pick up something from their travels. Strikingly, all Chile’s goals so far in the campaign have been scored by either Alexis Sanchez or Arturo Vidal — an illustration of how hard it has been for them to move on from their golden generation. They are an experienced squad — almost certainly too experienced — and they have always been full of opinions. Captain and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo says they are keen to express their position on the Copa America after the game is finished. This, then, is a round where the loudest and brightest fireworks might be set off after the final whistle is blown.