The South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has reached the halfway stage, with events merely underlining so far what the experts say about the CONMEBOL zone: that it is the toughest in the world.
Not only are two-time reigning Copa America champions Chile some way off the qualification places, but Brazil 2014 runners-up Argentina find themselves no higher than fifth, while a mere eight points separates the top seven sides in the table.
One year, nine matchdays and 45 games have gone by since the competition got under way a year ago. The qualification picture remains anything but clear, however, with the second half of the preliminaries set to begin on Tuesday 11 October.
Out front with 19 points, Uruguay are more comfortably positioned than they have become accustomed to in recent times, having ended up in the play-offs in the last four qualifying competitions. The bedrock for their impressive campaign to date has been their form at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, where they have won all five of their games without conceding a goal, a first since the current competition format was adopted.
“We haven’t achieved anything yet,” said coach Oscar Tabarez in the wake of his side’s 3-0 defeat of Venezuela on Thursday. “We’ve played nine games and every single one has been tough. If anyone thinks that winning these matches makes us a superteam, then they’re dreaming.”
With Edinson Cavani leading the way as the competition’s highest scorer with seven goals, La Celeste are sitting prettier than their fellow heavyweights, who have all had their problems and need to consolidate their positions by stringing some wins together.
Quite apart from the demands of the Copa America Centenario, the urgent need for results in an always competitive zone has already led to six coaches losing their jobs so far, with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela having all made changes in the dugout.
A Canarinha appear to be the only one of the six to have benefitted from the switch so far. New incumbent Tite has overseen three qualifying wins out of three to date, two of them on the road, with his side scoring ten goals in those games and just conceding the one.
Tite gave Neymar and Gabriel Jesus the chance to pursue and win Olympic gold, while also bringing the fans flashes of the jogo bonito they have been demanding. More importantly, he has steered the side from sixth place to second, just behind Uruguay, soothing the nerves frayed during Dunga’s spell in charge. “The team is still coming together, but I’m confident we’re heading in the right direction,” said the new man at the helm.
The outlook is slightly different for Argentina, with Edgardo Bauza yet to make his presence fully felt. La *Albiceleste *have shown two different sides to themselves in the first half of the competition. With Lionel Messi on the pitch, they have taken nine points out of a possible nine. During *La Pulga’s *injury-enforced absences, however, they have collected a mere seven points from 18, courtesy of just one win and four draws.
While this is the first time the Argentinians have ended the first half of the World Cup preliminaries outside the direct qualification places, their indifferent form is of more concern to their fans than the play-off slot they currently occupy, given that they are level on points with Ecuador and Colombia and have a cushion of four and five points respectively over Paraguay, their next opponents, and Chile.
Red lights flashing for Chile
La Albirroja and La Roja are also facing uncertain times, with every step forward being followed by two steps back, a frustrating lack of consistency that has left both sides in uncomfortable positions.
Chile’s woes are the more perplexing of the two. Since winning their second consecutive Copa America title in the USA this year, they have gone three games without a win and 243 minutes without scoring a goal, an unusual state of affairs for a squad featuring the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas.
Their latest outing ended in a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Ecuador. “We can still qualify, but we can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the last few games,” said Roja coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who still has plenty of goodwill following his side’s Copa America Centenario triumph.
Even Ecuador, one of the few sides who have kept faith with their coach since the start of the campaign, have enjoyed highs and lows. After kicking off in impressive fashion with four straight wins, La Tri took just one point out of a possible 12 before getting back on course with that victory over Chile.
Neither Peru nor Bolivia – despite the shake-up the latter has experienced under Guillermo Hoyos – have managed to embark on a sustained run that would give them renewed hope, while Venezuela have lost ground on everyone. Not even the arrival of respected former international Rafael Dudamel in the dugout has raised hopes of an immediate change in fortunes, though his enterprising approach could pay dividends in the future.