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An extremely depleted Peru team ran out something that looked a bit like a B team to start their World Cup qualifying match against Colombia on Sunday. Jose Paolo Guerrero made a start and Jefferson Farfan eventually came off the bench, but Peru were without a number of other top players, and based on the lineups that the two teams fielded, it seemed unlikely that they would be able to grab a point or three.
Surprisingly, Peru were excellent in the first half. Colombia had very few ideas going forward and Peru looked dangerous on the counter. Unfortunately for the home fans, the Colombia back line and David Ospina were on their game, and Peru went into the locker room with nothing to show for their first half dominance.
Colombia scored early in the second half, and that goal would be all they needed to grab all three points. Porto star James Rodriguez was the scorer, netting for his side in the 50th minute to secure a massive road win. Colombia had gotten off to a rocky start in qualifying and certainly didn't play well in the first half, but grabbing a road win in Peru could provide them with a serious boost going forward.
Whether through a stroke of genius or pure dumb luck, Alejandro Sabella appears to have finally figured out his Argentina selection dilemmas. The Albiceleste were absolutely brilliant on Saturday night, steamrolling Ecuador 4-0 at home in Buenos Aires. Lionel Messi finally found space and had teammates making the right runs off the ball in the romp, and he was the clear man of the match.
Sergio Aguero scored the opening goal 20 minutes in off of a through ball by Angel Di Maria, and from there Ecuador fell apart. Messi set up Gonzalo Higuain for his team's second goal in the 30th minute, then combined with Higuain on a goal of his own less than two minutes later to make it 3-0 on the night heading into halftime.
Argentina slowed down a bit in the second half and sat on their 3-0 lead, but still found another goal. Di Maria was the man who scored it, and it was an absolute beauty. He struck an absolute rocket from the edge of the box past Alexander Dominguez, helping Argentina to equal their previous high goal tally in World Cup qualifying.
Messi and Di Maria played similar creative roles between the holding midfielders and strikers and both had absolutely excellent games. Ecuador's midfield offered very little in the way of opposition to them, and their fans will be left wondering why they didn't introduce a true defensive midfielder in place of one of their forwards at home. Messi and Di Maria were often unopposed when they came into the middle, allowing them to set up numerous scoring chances.
The Albiceleste are now top of the qualifying table on points, though they have played one more game than Uruguay. They're sitting out next weekend's round of qualifying matches.
You know that meme that Lionel Messi isn't good for Argentina? It's unfounded. Alejandro Sabella and previous managers have struggled to put pieces around him that combine well with him, but he might have finally found the winning formula. Messi is one of two attacking midfielders with creative roles in Argentina's team against Ecuador, playing alongside Angel Di Maria in a 4-2-2-2 behind two strikers and in front of two holding midfielders. It's working brilliantly, and the Albiceleste lead 3-0 at halftime.
Sergio Aguero found the breakthrough in the 20th minute, finishing off a great move. Messi started it with a pass to Di Maria, who hit a great through ball to Aguero. The Manchester City man finished from the narrow angle to take the pressure off Argentina. From then until the end of the half, they began to play more loosely, and that loose play created two more goals.
Messi set up Gonzalo Higuain for a goal with a through ball in the 30th minute, then scored one of his own a minute later. After a long run through the middle, Messi laid off the ball for Higuain at the top of the box, and he quickly returned the ball to Messi, who finished.
At this point, Ecuador are basically in damage control mode. There's almost certainly no way back into this match for them.
Argentina has a lot of talent. In fact, they have so much talent that they can leave some of their best players off the team or on the bench in favor of Alejandro Sabella's favorites and still be on the verge of pulling away from the pack in CONMEBOL 2014 World Cup qualifying. Oh, they joy of incredible talent.
If Argentina can win tonight they will move to the top of the qualification table with 10 points after five matches. It's not a perfect record and they would certainly be doing better if they had their best players, but it's a pretty nice place to be. Meanwhile, their opponents today, Ecuador, can also move to the top of the table with a win, although that is asking a lot of a team playing in Argentina. Just nab a point and they will be jumping for joy.
Ecuador: Alexander Domínguez; Gabriel Achilier, Jairo Campos, Jorge Guagua, Walter Ayoví; Pedro Quiñónez, Christian Noboa, Luis Saritama, Antonio Valencia; Cristian Suárez, Christian Benítez.
Chile were not at their best on Saturday afternoon, but some good luck and a very frustrated Bolivia side helped them to a victory. Chile's defense was very poor in the first half and they were constantly broken open by Bolivia's quick counter attacks. Marcelo Diaz committed two handballs in the box in the first half, even if neither of them were spotted by the referee. Eventually, Chile turned around their bad play and made the most of their good fortune, scoring twice in a 2-0 win.
The first goal and eventual winner came in first half stoppage time, via Universidad de Chile playmaker Charles Aranguiz. Chile were arguably outplayed for much of the first half, but that goal heading into the locker room gave them a big boost, and they played much better football in the second half.
Still, Bolivia looked dangerous on the counter and was denied a couple more penalty shouts. The calls simply didn't go their way. The referee effected the game further when he handed out a 54th minute red card to Bolivian defender Luis Gutierrez, but in this instance, the call that went against Bolivia was deserved. Alexis Sanchez almost drew two red cards on the same run, weaving through multiple defenders before he was violently hacked down by Luis Mendez. Gutierrez then kicked the ball at Sanchez. Gutierrez was given red while Mendez was given yellow, and Bolivia were lucky that two reds weren't shown.
Chile eventually cashed in on their man advantage with a goal by Arturo Vidal, struck into the roof of the net in impressive fashion, giving Chile an insurmountable lead in the 82nd minute. They now have nine points from five games and will sit no lower than second in the table at the end of the round.
Uruguay's position on top of the table in CONMEBOL 2014 World Cup qualifying is in jeopardy, and it's becoming apparent that no one is safe in South America's World Cup qualifiers. They were dominant for most of their match against Venezuela in Montevideo on Saturday, but let in a bad own goal late to drop points in a 1-1 draw.
Venezuela defended well to start the match, but they offered very little going forward in the first half while Diego Perez bossed the midfield for Uruguay. Even though the home side didn't create too much in the way of clear-cut chances, they were so dominant that an eventual goal seemed inevitable throughout the half, and they finally grabbed it in the 39th minute.
Most of Uruguay's attacks had been going through Maxi Pereira on the right flank, but it was Alvaro Pereira on the left who eventually set up the goal. His assist was a great diagonal into the box, and Diego Forlan timed his run perfectly to stay onside, then blow by the defense to get on top of it. He took a great first touch, then placed a difficult finish past Renny Vega to give his team the lead.
His fellow strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez didn't have the best of games, and as the second half wore on they started to look a bit lethargic. Cavani had one good opportunity, a low shot from 12 yards in the 50th minute, but Vega made a stunning reaction save to keep his team in the game.
Venezuela only threatened on long balls and set pieces throughout the match, but eventually got lucky. As a bit of a precursor to the goal, Diego Lugano picked up an injury and was replaced by Sebastian Coates in the 78th minute. Though Coates didn't make a mistake on the goal, Uruguay's defense almost certainly suffered from abruptly losing their leader 12 minutes from full time.
Tomas Rincon set up the 83rd equalizer, putting a dangerous cross into the center of the penalty area. Solomon Rondon got between two defenders and rose to meet it, but whiffed on his header. The ball went by him and hit Diego Godin, who did not see it, and then redirected into the back of the net to give Venezuela an incredible equalizer. Perhaps more importantly for them and all of their competitors, it denied a previously surging Uruguay two points that they would have had otherwise.
Venezuela created very little in this match, but the result is part of a trend that's probably going to continue. They can defend, they're dangerous on set pieces, they have physically talented strikers and players that can cross. They can't match Uruguay for talent and they were outplayed on Saturday, but they looked like they belonged on the same pitch with them throughout the match, and it wouldn't be surprising if their gameplan continued to be effective throughout qualifying.
If I were a fan of the Albiceleste, I would be afraid that my manager makes his team selections while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. He's obviously not taking anything strong enough to omit Lionel Messi, but he's getting crazy ideas nonetheless.
Pablo Guiñazu, Rodrigo Braña, Leandro Desabato, Jose Ernesto Sosa and Maxi Rodriguez all made this team. The first three of those players are 33 years old and have less than 10 caps to their name. Maxi has been in terrible club form for about three years. Sosa has very rarely played a decent game for Argentina and has been a failure in both the Bundesliga and Serie A in recent seasons. Javier Pastore, Esteban Cambiasso and Nicolas Gaitan were among those omitted from the team. I wish this was a joke.
Argentina will probably field a lineup that looks stupid. Alejandro Sabella will probably try to shoehorn Guiñazu and/or Sosa into it somehow. Ecuador will surround Messi with three players and Argentina's other players will continue to pass him the ball, then stand around and wait for him to do something. This is all standard operating procedure.
Meanwhile, they're not up against scrubs. Yes, Argentina are at home against a team that is far inferior in the talent department, but Ecuador is no joke. In the last World Cup qualifying cycle, Argentina only grabbed one point from their two matches against Ecuador. Their captain, Walter Ayovi, is one of the most accomplished foreign players to ever play in the Mexican Primera. They feature Manchester United star Antonio Valencia and Club America scoring machine 'Chucho' Christian Benitez.
An upset wouldn't be stunning, but there are still massive matchup problems for Ecuador, even if Argentina look like the most inept version of themselves. The center of defense is where La Tri have the most question marks, and forward is where Argentina have the most answers. The Albiceleste could play truly putrid football for 90 minutes, but pull off a goal in an instant when Sergio Aguero walks through the Ecuador defense uncontested.
At the end of the day, as crazy as Sabella's team selections are and as lame as Argentina have been since ... I need to think about this ... 2007 (yeah, it's been that long since they were any good), they still have the most ridiculous collection of pure attacking talent on the planet. Expect them to pick a stupid-looking lineup. Expect them to play less than remarkable football. But also expect them to grab three points on Saturday. The game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. ET from Buenos Aires.
Between Chile's ambitious style and their injuries in defense, they haven't been great at preventing goals thus far in World Cup qualifying. In their first three matches, La Roja allowed 10 goals, with four of those coming against a Uruguay side that absolutely ripped them to pieces on November 11. In their next match, they recorded a shutout, but that was against a terribly unambitious Paraguay team playing for a road draw.
They're facing Bolivia on Saturday, hardly an offensive juggernaut. They're almost certainly the worst team in South America at the moment and they've yet to turn their notorious home-field advantage in La Paz into any points in qualifying. Still, they're always dangerous at home, and Chile is without some of their most experienced players.
Waldo Ponce and Gonzalo Jara have been kept out of the team by bad club form and injuries, while automatic starter Mauricio Isla is out purely due to injury. Pablo Contreras is in the team, but getting up there in age. This means the most experienced starter in the Chile back line is likely to be Marcos Gonzalez, who has a whopping 11 caps. This is provided that Arturo Vidal isn't moved to central defense, which is hardly a move that adds experience or discipline to a back line.
In that spot, Claudio Borghi is simply stuck with what he has, and the decisions he makes probably won't have a significant impact on his team. The biggest choice he has to make is whether to go with a solid center of midfield or start playmaker (and non-existent defender) Matias Fernandez behind his front three. Against a Bolivia side that counters very quickly at home, he might opt to play a couple of deep-sitting central midfielders, or at least one player that fits that description alongside Vidal.
Chile have the attacking talent to make all of these tactical dilemmas go away, but it's been a while since Humberto Suazo and Alexis Sanchez were at their best. If they can get back to playing like they did under Marcelo Bielsa, Borghi can go back to not worrying about protecting his defense. No one wants to see Chile move away from their entertaining 'three forwards and a playmaker' attacking style. Kickoff is at 4:10 p.m. ET from La Paz on Saturday.
Lionel Messi is probably the best footballer in the world, and Brazil has South America's deepest pool of young talent, but Uruguay seems to be establishing themselves as the best team in South America. At this point, what's the argument against them? They were the best-finishing South American team at the 2010 World Cup, they won the 2011 Copa America, and they're currently leading the way in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. They don't have the central midfield quality of Brazil and Argentina, but their back line, wingbacks and forwards compare favorably.
They're heavy favorites to continue their romp through South American qualifying with another win on Saturday against Venezuela, but the contest might not be as lopsided as it appears to the casual observer. Venezuela, once the continent's whipping boys, have improved significantly and are a legitimate threat to beat one of South America's established sides to a qualifying place.
Securing Athletic Bilbao defender Fernando Amorebieta -- who was born in Venezuela but immigrated to the Basque Country as a child -- has been massive. He's formed a fantastic central defense partnership with Oswaldo Vizcarrondo that allows Venezuela to compete with any team in the world, both because of their defending and their attacking threat on set pieces.
The problem for Venezuela is that they're lacking in the place where Uruguay is vulnerable, the center of midfield. Teams with an extremely strong center can cause problems for the Celeste, but Venezuela don't have the players to challenge Diego Perez, Walter Gargano and Arevalo Rios. Their defenders might make life hard for Uruguay's famed front three, but they should be able to score at least once or twice.
Expect Venezuela to give Uruguay a tough game, but also expect to see Alvaro and Maxi Pereira dominating the flanks. Their presence will be the biggest difference between the two sides in this match, and their ability to run the sidelines by themselves while creating opportunities for their front three should guide Uruguay to a victory. Kickoff is at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday in Montevideo.
South American World Cup qualifying resumes on Saturday with three matches. Peru and Colombia close out the round on Sunday.
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