Qualifying returns with coaching changes aplenty
Five months have passed since the last round of matches in South American qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, and the landscape has altered for half of the teams involved, with five of the ten sides in the region now with a new head coach.
The changes intensified in the wake of the Copa America Centenario in the USA. Compared to the last qualifying fixtures back in March, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela will all have a new tactician on the touchline for Matchday 7. FIFA.com looks ahead to the upcoming encounters.**
Match of the day ***Argentina – Uruguay
*Despite losing a second Copa America final in as many years, Argentina are in good shape, at least on paper. Los Albicelestes lie third in the qualifying table and sit atop of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. However, they had to deal with the departure of coach Gerardo Tata Martino following the continental showdown. There have been changes aplenty under his successor, Edgardo Bauza, and not only with regard to Lionel Messi, who reversed his decision to retire from international duty. El Paton *has handed comebacks to Martin Demichelis and Paulo Dybala, while leaving out Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi for the time being. A victory in Mendoza would allow Argentina to leapfrog their rivals in the standings.
Uruguay may have slipped up at the Copa America, where they failed to progress beyond the group stage, but they top South American qualifying with 13 points. Head coach Oscar 'El Maestro' Tabarez is well aware how difficult this meeting will be and is putting his faith in his big-name stars: Luis Suarez, Diego Godin, Edinson Cavani and Fernando Muslera. A win would put them five points ahead of their neighbours from across the Rio de la Plata.
The other matches Bolivia also have a new face on the touchline, with Argentinian coach Angel Guillermo Hoyos taking over following Julio Cesar Baldivieso's resignation. Under the new regime, icons Marcelo Martins and Ronald Raldes have returned to the set-up having been previously overlooked. Bolivia's task is no easy one given that they only have three points on the board and must now face a Peru side buoyed by an impressive outing at the Copa America, where they beat Brazil in the group stage. Coach Ricardo Gareca's charges currently have four points and need a victory in La Paz, a feat they have never before achieved.
Colombia go into their match against Venezuela revitalised after earning six points from their last two outings. Coach Jose Pekerman once again called up key players James Rodriguez and Carlos Bacca, as well as Luis Fernando Muriel, Teo Gutierrez and Macnelly Torres. The encounter at the Estadio Metropolitano de Barranquilla will be crucial if they are to keep touch with the group leaders. Somewhat surprisingly, Venezuela are bottom of the standings with just a single point but will take encouragement from having Rafael Dudamel at the helm for the first time in a World Cup qualifier, after he led La Vinotinto at the Copa America. With Salomon Rondon and Tomas Rincon in the side, they will be hopeful of matching their near neighbours.
Ecuador are the surprise package of the qualifiers, behind Uruguay in the standings on goal difference alone. Against Brazil they have the opportunity to get back on track after collecting just one point from the last six on offer. While Felipe Caicedo, one of the top scorers so far in the qualifying campaign, returns to the fold, they will be without suspended duo Antonio Valencia and Pedro Quinonez. Meanwhile Brazil, who drew 0-0 with Ecuador at the Copa America, also have a new head coach after failing to get out of the group stage at that tournament. Dunga was replaced by Tite, who has selected seven of the recently crowned Olympic champions from Rio 2016 in his first squad, as well as recalling Marcelo. *A Seleção *are currently in sixth place on nine points, out of the qualifying spots and the play-off berth.
Finally, Paraguay's clash with Chile in Asuncion holds great promise. Following Ramon Diaz's resignation, Francisco Arce was re-appointed* as head coach for his second spell in charge of La Albirroja. El* Chiqui called up veteran Roque Santa Cruz, experienced goalkeeper Justo Villar, striker Dario Lezcano and the talented Miguel Almiron in an effort to overcome an ambitious Chile side. The two-time continental champions go into the game full of confidence. Although custodian Claudio Bravo is absent, stalwarts Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal are available as Juan Antonio Pizzi's men eye a result that would keep them on course to reach Russia 2018.
Player to watch *James Rodriguez (Colombia)* The gifted Real Madrid attacker has been a cornerstone of the Colombia side in recent times. He was in fine form during the last two qualifying matches in March, even scoring a goal in La Paz, and was also one of the standout performers at the Copa America. Nevertheless, his game-time has been limited at club level, leading to some onlookers to speculate as to his future. These matches will allow the midfielder to gain minutes on the pitch and confirm his commitment to the national team. The spotlight will be trained on him.
Did you know…? Uruguay have never beaten Argentina away from home during South American World Cup qualifying. Despite being one of the most frequently contested fixtures in world football, with 184 meetings to date, they have only met ten times in this competition. Argentina have won on five occasions and Los Charruas just twice – with each of those triumphs coming on home soil. In fact, Uruguay have not won in Argentina in the regulation 90 minutes since a 1-0 triumph at the 1987 Copa America.
The words "They’re tough but exciting games, the kind we’ve always enjoyed, with plenty at stake. We’ll need to pick up some points away, of course, but we need to recover that sense of fear that visiting teams always felt in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco . Our priority is making the fans’ support count." Francisco Arce**, Paraguay coach, in an interview with FIFA.com**.
Matchday 7 fixtures: *1 September
**Bolivia-Peru Colombia-Venezuela Ecuador-Brazil Argentina-Uruguay Paraguay-Chile