CONMEBOL Qualifiers Roundup: Argentina Survive Bolivian Altitude, Venezuela and Chile Pull off Surprise Wins

Argentine striker Lionel Messi (Google Creative Commons)

Argentine striker Lionel Messi (Google Creative Commons)

It has been said that World Cup qualifying in South America is more tightly-contested than in any other of the continental federations within FIFA. Pitting the likes of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina, who have all graced the top 12 of the FIFA World Rankings in the past year, against each other for a spot at the world’s biggest sporting tournament, it is no surprise that despite only 10 national teams CONMEBOL consistently provides some of the most memorable matches during the qualification phase.

Although Brazil are already qualified as hosts in 2014 and are not competing, the competition hasn’t been any less interesting over the past year-and-a-half.

With Argentina leading before this past round of fixtures and Paraguay the only team seemingly without a hope of reaching the tournament in neighboring Brazil, every match has provided one fascinating twist after another. In the current set-up, the top four teams automatically qualify for the World Cup, with the fifth-placed finisher facing a playoff against a team from Asia.

Leaders Argentina have been impressive and have only lost once in 11 matches — away to Venezuela 1-0. In the return fixture last Friday, the side led by captain Lionel Messi pulverized their opponents 3-0, with Messi assisting both Gonzalo Higuain goals and scoring a penalty kick. Facing a potentially embarrassing trip to Bolivia next, the side were able to redeem themselves from their 6-1 loss in 2009 by drawing 1-1 in a scrappy match that keeps them ahead of second-placed Ecuador by four points.

The Ecuadorians made easy work of Paraguay in their only qualification match of the week, defeating them 4-1 in Quito.  After making it to the 2002 and 2006 editions of the World Cup, the side finished sixth in CONMEBOL in 2010, failing to qualify for South Africa. They are now on course to return to the tournament, with only two losses against Argentina and Paraguay.

The Colombians, who are one point behind Ecuador but played twice over the past week, could have added further pressure to leaders Argentina. Yet, after overcoming Bolivia 5-0 at home, they lost to a resilient and surprising Venezuela 1-0. The Radamel Falcao-led Colombians still look on course to qualify for their first World Cup since 1998. Of course, they will need a strong performance in their next match in Buenos Aires if they are to avoid being caught by Chile or Venezuela.

The latter round out the top five, after picking up three points each following losses to Peru and Argentina, respectively. Chile redeemed themselves by defeating a disappointing Uruguay 2-0 at home, while Venezuela look like at least making the playoff for Brazil 2014  after a strong, albeit losing performance against Argentina and a victory over a usually rampant Colombia.

Uruguay, winners of the 2011 Copa America and fourth-place finishers at the last World Cup, drew 1-1 against Paraguay before the loss to Chile. The struggling Charrúas have not won since defeating Peru 4-2 last June and could be without Luis Suarez for a handful of matches after punching Gonzalo Jara in the Chile match, which could see retrospective action from FIFA.

At this moment, with Argentina the only side seemingly assured of a spot in Brazil, there remains room for surprises before the final matchday in October.

Many experts will expect Uruguay and Chile to pick up the pace and take advantage of the weakness shown by Bolivia and Paraguay so far. Meanwhile, Venezuela have shown they possess both the quality and sheer will to qualify for their first ever tournament, ahead of at least Peru, who defeated them for third-place at the Copa America in 2011.

CONMEBOL play resumes on June 7th with Argentina hosting Colombia, Venezuela traveling to Bolivia, and Paraguay and Peru hosting Chile and Ecuador, respectively.

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