Saturday, May 28, 2022

What’s at stake in CONMEBOL qualifiers as Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Uruguay battle for final spots

Whenever a popular television series is forced to deal with its inevitable ending, there’s always the daunting realization that the finale — no matter how well it’s written or performed — will never please everyone. There was Khaleesi’s twist of fate in “Game of Thrones,” the controversial diner scene in “The Sopranos,” and even the one we can all agree on, the ridiculousness that was “Lost.”

The point is that sometimes, whether it’s a television show or World Cup qualifiers, the conclusion can disappoint. In South America, however, at least for the neutral, that’s hardly the case. It may not be filled with dragons or a New Jersey mob family, but CONMEBOL qualifiers are facing a riveting final stretch. Every match in this window has a consequence for anyone who wants to play in Qatar and with Ecuador getting closer and closer to becoming the third South American nation to book a ticket for November, the spots are running out. 

Let’s take a look at what’s at stake.

Brazil and Argentina, the continent’s royalty, have already qualified so they enter this window with no pressure, but I don’t expect them to slow down, even without Neymar Jr. and Lionel Messi, who are not included. Both sides have a glorious chance to showcase their depth and finetune their strengths. For Brazil, there is still the firepower of Vinicius Jr, Lucas Paqueta, Raphinha, Matheus Cunha and Rodrygo. Not too shabby. There’s also Phillippe Coutinho’s new energy after his move to Aston Villa has given him a new sense of focus. He hasn’t started for the national team since October 2020. Dani Alves is also there, after turning back the years with Barcelona, so it’s safe to say that Brazil are still Brazil. What’s more, this is a nation that prides itself on rhythm and momentum and coach Tite’s side have not lost a single game during this window. They don’t want to begin a new trend.

Ecuador, however, are a formidable squad. They’re young, hungry, well organized under Gustavo Alfaro and as long as they don’t completely self-destruct and every other result goes against them, they should return to the World Cup after missing out in Russia. The sad thing for the home game against Brazil is that the stadium in Quito will be without fans due to the high national numbers of COVID-19. We will see if their own energy is enough to sustain Brazilian prowess. 

As for Argentina, the South American champions, Lionel Scaloni has already told his squad that qualification to Qatar is not an excuse to slow down. 

“It’s a World Cup year, the manager has told us what we’ve achieved already is in the past,” said goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez on Tuesday, speaking via the Argentinian national team’s platforms. “No one has come here to relax.”

It’s not surprising as Scaloni is the type of manager who’s constantly looking for ways to improve his project, especially as Messi is not here. This is a great chance to see what the Albiceleste looks like without their legendary star. 

I think the answer has already been given, to be honest, as Messidependencia is a thing of the past and the squad, with Paolo Dybala, the electric Julian Alvarez, Angel di Maria, Lautaro Martinez and Papu Gomez, doesn’t ache for talent. We might even see Emiliano Buendia log in some minutes as he has been lighting it up recently with Aston Villa in the Premier League. At the back is Scaloni’s biggest qualm as they will have to figure out Cristian Romero’s absence due to injury, in order to maintain their six-game streak of clean sheets. 

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What’s interesting is that their trip against Chile will also be tested by the climate as La Roja has moved the game out of the capital Santiago and to Calama, which is in the north of the country. Calama is the gateway into the Atacama desert and on the western side of the Andes, and it’s about 7,500 feet above sea level. This, as Tim Vickery notes, appears to be a sign of desperation as they fight to get back into contention. Some pundits and players, however, question this move as it’s not like the conditions favor their own team, especially the popular Ben Brereton Diaz, who was born and raised in Stoke and plays in Lancashire for Blackburn Rovers. Not exactly the Andes. The stadium is wonderful, though, so the game will be easy on the eye. Conditions aside, Chile’s biggest puzzle is how to win without Arturo Vidal, who is suspended. Chile have not won a 2022 qualifier when he hasn’t featured so they’re going to have to find a way without their adored midfielder, who does so many things for them on the pitch, including jaw-dropping goals. This is Chile — a team that never says die — and with only a point away from the intercontinental playoff spot, anything can happen.  

Speaking of “anything can happen,” Peru literally lives by this sentiment. I mean, it’s not like they have a choice. Time and time again, Peruvians have witnessed heartache so whenever destiny remains in their hands, a drop of hope stays intact. Ricardo Gareca’s side sit in fifth and the glory of World Cup football continues. 

In retrospect, this is an incredible situation, because back in September, La Blanquirroja sat dead-last in the standings and it didn’t seem like things would turn around. But three victories from the last five — and some results going Peru’s way — have given this squad a great sense of confidence. There is no Paolo Guerrero as he continues to rehab from injury but Gianluca Lapadula has become the new icon for the national team. The Italian-born Peruvian plays like Atahualpa fighting Spanish Conquistadores with his last breath, and the country adores him. Alongside the spine of Renato Tapia, Alex Callens and Pedro Gallese — whose saves are the goalkeeping version of Neo in “The Matrix” dodging bullets — there is a sense of belief in the Peruvian camp. Colombia and Barranquilla, however, are not to be messed with and Peru’s record in that heat is not favorable, but Los Cafeteros, who are in fourth place, are not currently intimidating anyone these days. Under Reinaldo Rueda, their defensive resiliency is solid but they just can’t score a goal. In fact, they haven’t been able to put the ball in the back of the net in the qualifiers since September. 

At least Colombia is in a good spot, which is not something you can say about Uruguay. Could they be the giant that doesn’t make it to the World Cup — an outcome that has not happened since 2006? Diego Alonso, the new man in charge, will be responsible, so it will be interesting to see how he manages these final games. The first against a Paraguayan side who have a slim chance of qualifying, followed by Venezuela, who — knowing that Qatar is not possible — are on a new journey with the well-known experience of Jose Pekerman. Uruguay’s biggest strength — much like Manchester United — is actually their weakness because they can’t allow the successes of their past dictate the objectives of their future. Edison Cavani knows this better than anyone and if I were Alonso, I’d start him alone with Luis Suarez on the bench. Both of them together has not worked out, so Uruguay’s best bet is fortify the midfield and capitalize on build-up. One thing is for certain, they need answers because they’re on the outside, without a win since September.        

Bolivia remains the final story. Everyone knows how tough they are in the altitudes of La Paz, but away from home is a different story. Having said that, they are only two points away from fifth and with two doable matches (away at Venezuela and at home to Chile) this nation’s hopes of the World Cup are not as unrealistic as they once were. 

The finale is approaching in South America and all that remains is finding out whether the audience will rightly predict the outcome. Whether everyone approves of the ending is still up for discussion, but one thing is for sure, we will be entertained.       

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