Soccer

Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador win in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying to keep clear

In the seventh round of South America’s World Cup qualifiers, the bottom five in the table met the top five and were unable to do anything of note. The only change in the standings was that Peru climbed above Venezuela at the foot of the table as the top three were the only teams to register a win.

It is now seven wins out of seven for Brazil, who have already accumulated almost enough points to be sure of a place at Qatar 2022 before the halfway stage has even been reached. The 1-0 victory away to Chile was achieved without a number of their first-choice players — nine from the Premier League and two based in Russia were missing, all caught up in the club vs. country row.

Brazil coach Tite saw this as an opportunity to have a look at some other options and, though he will be happy with the result, there is also some cause for concern.

The sides met recently in the Copa America quarterfinals, where Brazil also won by the only goal. On that day Chile managed to frustrate Brazil with a back three and they did it again here. Tite picked his side especially, with a pair of speedsters on the flanks — Gabriel Barbosa on the right and Vinicius Jr. on the left – in the hope of getting outside the Chile defence and causing problems.

Instead, Chile were the ones on top. They had the extra man in midfield and it was usually Arturo Vidal who found the space to pull the strings. Brazil’s centre-backs mostly dealt with much of the threat and kept Chile at bay, and when they were breached it was a fine tackle from left-back Alex Sandro that stopped Chile from taking the lead.

There was little elaboration from Brazil, which was vexing because, after scoring just two goals in the last three games of the Copa, Tite was looking for an improvement. He had called for his team to be less direct, but Lucas Paqueta, supposedly the midfield organiser, had a disappointing night and Neymar, looking short of match fitness, could not paper over the cracks.

The only goal was a fine one, though, coming from one of the few clear chances that Brazil created. A rare forward burst from right back Danilo drew the defence, Neymar and substitute Everton Ribeiro combined, and when Claudio Bravo blocked Neymar’s shot, Everton Ribeiro was on hand to drill home.

Brazil went home with the points, but will be looking for something more expansive on Sunday when they host an Argentina side fresh from a convincing 3-1 win away to 10-man Venezuela.

Under caretaker coach Leonardo Gonzalez, Venezuela picked an attacking side and sought to cause problems with their attacking pace, but it all went wrong at the other end. Centre-back Jose Manuel Velasquez was injured early; Adrian Martinez came on to replace him, and before he had warmed up, he was drawn into a wild tackle on Lionel Messi. He slipped and lost his footing on the way, which made the challenge look worse than it probably was, but he was sent off, and Venezuela had to cope with 10 men against an Argentina side full of confidence after their recent Copa America triumph.

Coach Lionel Scaloni kept the same shape of the side that he used in the Copa final against Brazil, with Angel Di Maria wide on the right. Di Maria won them that game, but his inclusion came at a price. It pushed Giovani Lo Celso out to the left and interrupted his fine partnership with Messi. This time Marcos Acuna attacked from left-back, allowing Lo Celso to push infield, and Argentina soon found their rhythm playing their intricate triangles.

Lo Celso slipped Lautaro Martinez through to score the opener just before half-time and, after the break, similarly slick passing moves resulted in goals for the Correas, one for Joaquin and one for Angel. Venezuela’s stoppage time penalty was scant consolation, though Yeferson Soteldo milked the moment with a well-crafted ‘Panenka.’

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Argentina had their three points in the bank early in their game, but third-placed Ecuador had to wait until the end to break down a typically resilient Paraguay in Quito.

Including the Copa and the two rounds of qualifiers in early June, Ecuador had gone seven games without a win, and it showed. Coach Gustavo Alfaro seems to have lost some confidence in his side. Worried about the number of goals Ecuador had been conceding, he went with a third centre-back — surely unnecessary against unambitious opponents who only left one man upfield and rarely crossed the half way line. Furthermore, pushing the attacking full-backs forward as wing-backs did not suit the side, it just robbed them of their acceleration space and made them easier to mark.

For a long time, Ecuador were unable to create. After an hour, Alfaro switched to his more customary 4-2-3-1 and the moves started to flow. But even then, it took until the 88th minute to break the deadlock. A corner on the left was cleared, and played back to the taker, Junior Sornoza. Left-back Pervis Estupinan over-lapped and sent a delicious cross to the far post, where centre-back Felix Torres headed home. There was still time for striker Michael Estada to score a glorious solo goal for his second, cutting in from the right flank, leaving two defenders in his trail and steering past the keeper.

Earlier in the day Roger Martinez had scored a very similar goal to put Colombia in the lead away to Bolivia. The hosts grabbed a late equaliser when Fernando Saucedo smashed home a shot that David Ospina hardly saw as it flew past him in the thin mountain air of La Paz.

And down on the Pacific coast Peru and Uruguay also drew 1-1. Uruguay stay fourth — the last automatic qualifying slot — while Peru move a point above bottom of the table Venezuela. But with just five points separating Uruguay and Venezuela, there is still plenty to play for when the action resumes in Sunday’s eighth round — with Brazil vs. Argentina the obvious highlight.

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