Joseph James takes a look at the state of play in the South American Qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup: the teams, their stars and their chances of getting to the World Cup in Russia 2018.
With the end of the international break, the race for automatic qualification in South America is hotting up. This summer we saw Chile beat Argentina in the centenary of the Copa Sudamerica in what happened to be a repeat of the 2015 final. The teams have now played twelve matches and a pattern of which teams might be in the mix for the four automatic qualification spots is starting to emerge. The fifth place team then goes to an intercontinental play-off match against the winner of the North American competition.
FIFA world ranking: 1st
Coach: Edgardo Bauza
The enigma of the South American footballing age, with three consecutive losses in major tournament finals, a host of world class stars, including one Lionel Messi, it is a wonder how they have not won a major international tournament. They are becoming the ‘nearly’ generation, Mario Gotze’s extra- time goal, Messi’s miss, what else can this team do to claim a trophy?
They certainly need a better start to their qualification campaign than they have done so far, a 3-0 loss against their archrivals Brazil added to what has truly been a terrible start on the road to Russia. However, the world’s best player turned it in on style when they beat Colombia 3-0 in San Juan to leapfrog their South American counterparts in the table. They now lie fifth and with some much needed momentum their hopes of qualifying automatically look good.
Strength: Argentina boast a collection of household names with the depth in attack being the envy of other international coaches across the world. A team that can bring Sergio Agüero off the bench will scare any defense.
Weakness: Instability. The Argentine Football Federation appears to be in a complete mess and is currently bankrupt. Furthermore, the players have boycotted the media after accusations that Ezequial Lavezzi was smoking marijuana after a training session.
Star Player: This one is fairly obvious. Lionel Messi retired after his missed penalty in the Copa America final only to realise how desperate his team was, and come out of his short-lived retirement. He has scored 57 goals for the national side.
One to look out for: Paulo Dybala. Although he is yet to make his mark for the national team the Juventus forward has been tipped to be in excess of £50 million and could become a decisive figure for the Albiceleste.
World Ranking: 3rd
How the future looks so much brighter since that embarrassing failure to get of their group in the summer. Neymar and co. are looking good as they sit top of the group with 27 points. A 2-0 win in Lima extends their unbeaten run in South American qualifying to six games. That feat has not been achieved since 1970 by a Brazil side. There is much optimism for their supporters since the embarrassment of the World Cup in the Maracanã that night. It appears that in recent times, the football-loving nation is falling out of love with the national side. However, with automatic qualification all but guaranteed the team is looking very impressive and look seemingly strong right across the park. There is further good news for Brazil that Coutinho can copy his excellent form for Liverpool for his country as well.
Strengths: The attack appears to be gelling well: Coutinho, Neymar and Jesus took a poor Argentinian side apart.
Weakness: The defence still looks like a cause for concern. With Dani Alves and Thiago Silva not getting any younger and the ever-erratic David Luiz, against good opponents they could ship goals.
Star Player: The captain and no. 10 Neymar. 50 goals. A global superstar, he appears to have it all and at 24 is getting better and better.
One to look out for: Gabriel Jesus. It appears that Brazil have finally found a number 9. The 19 year old has scored four goals in six appearances this campaign and is looking well worth the £27 million that Manchester City have paid for him. He is currently playing for Palmeiras in Brazil but Sergio Agüero better watch his back when this wonderkid arrives at the Etihad in January.
World Ranking: 6th
Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi
Back to back successes in the Copa America means that Chile currently have the most successful team in their history. They recently won 3-1 against Uruguay and with a solid spine they have one of the hardest defences in South America, which allows the more creative players Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez to flourish upfront. They have the difficult proposition of an away fixture against Argentina in March 2017, followed by three must-win games against Venezuela, Paraguay and Bolivia. It seems that if they pick up at least seven points from those games then the match against Ecuador (currently in 3rd) will become crucial if they are to get in the top four and qualify automatically.
Strengths: They know how to win against the big teams and in the big games. Whilst it is unfair to label them as overachievers they certainly seem to punch well above their weight and all this experience will be vital for Pizzi’s side.
Weakness: Perhaps an over-reliance on their big names. Without Sanchez and Arturo Vidal it does appear that they could lack quality but this hasn’t yet been exposed in the big games.
Star Player: Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez has scored 36 games for his country. His tireless running and quality up front spearhead this dangerous Chilean side and when he plays the team is certainly boosted by his presence.
One to watch: For some reason centre forward Eduardo Vargas seems to come alive when he puts on the red shirt of la selección. His club form for Hoffenheim is not nearly as impressive as when he plays for Chile.
World Ranking: 5th
Coach: José Pékerman
Colombia appeared to be in good form before their recent 3-0 drubbing against Argentina, they currently sit 6th in the of not qualifying. They have some very winnable games coming up and the fixture against rivals Ecuador in March looks key. However, they are currently 5th in the world with James Rodriguez being the star player in a side that is young and exciting to watch. The team has many household names: wingers such as Juan Cuadrado ply their trade in the main European leagues and with a seemingly endless list of quality strikers they do not lack goals. They impressed in Brazil 2014 reaching the quarter-finals which they then backed up by reaching the semis in the USA last year.
Strengths: The pace of the wings and the forwards would scare most defences and with Falcao starting to find some form again there are goals right across the team.
Weakness: Their defence has been a problem with experienced defenders Yepes and Zuniga nearing the ends of their career.
Star player: The captain, golden boy and midfield maestro James Rodriguez is the lynchpin of this side. Anyone who watched the World Cup saw his performances; with him struggling to get into Zidane’s squads there is speculation of a move to Manchester… However, he certainly gets into the Colombian team and at his best, is thrilling to watch.
One to watch: Young defender Davinson Sanchez has recently been signed by Ajax from Atlético Nacional and could be a star of the future.
World Ranking: 19th
Coach: Carlos Quinteiroz
They are currently 3rd in the table and look impressive in their bid for automatic qualification. However, their hardest games are still to come with Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Colombia. They have a good combination of youth and experience with Antonio Valencia, Christian Naboa, Walter Ayovi and Enner Valencia. A requirement of this team should be getting to Russia and the fixture against Colombia looks to be crucial in what is the start of a very difficult run.
Strengths: Their current position shows they are in better form than some of the other teams around them in the competition. Rather more cynically you could say they are stronger at home because of the altitude in Quito.
Weakness: A lack of quality compared to other leading teams may yet be their undoing in the race for automatic qualification.
Star Player: Centre forward Enner Valencia (or superman as his teammates call him) is their main goal-scorer. He is on loan at Everton and is in danger of becoming another pointless signing by the Merseyside club but he has an impressive record for the national side with 19 goals in 34 appearances.
One to watch: Nicknamed ‘Speedy González’, Jonathan González won his big money move to play for Independiente del Valle after many good performances in Ecuador. The 21 year old may have lost his way a bit in recent times but having looked at his club form the kid certainly oozes talent. He was listed by ‘Outside of the Boot’ as one of the best young players to watch in 2015, and the Ecuadorian manager will hope that he starts living up to his expectations as they look for qualification.
World Ranking: 9th
Coach: Óscar Tabárez
Another one of the heavyweights in South American football, they are looking good and sit in second place, although they did lose 3-1 to a dynamic Chilean side in the most recent international break. In Suarez they possess a superstar of world football and their defence is equally as strong with Diego Godin and Raul Jimenez. They got out of a tricky group in Brazil at the expense of England and look set to be in the mix for Russia as well. In comparison to other teams like Ecuador their run in looks a lot easier with Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Strengths: A strong centre back pairing means they have some of the meanest defences in the competition having conceded only eleven goals so far.
Weakness: Potentially a lack of quality in midfield and the jury is still out on whether Cavani can deliver when it matters.
Star Player: Luis Suarez. He has scored 47 goals in 90 games, he is the Barcelona number 9 in that famous trio that is terrifying Europe and has been nominated for the Golden Ball. With the controversial Uruguayan they have a player who can create a goal out of nothing and his partnership with Cavani is instrumental to their success.
One to watch: José Jimenez really looks like a good defender with several Premier League clubs monitoring the 21 year old. Diego Simeone certainly gets the best out of his defensive players, and he is strong, quick and has an excellent reading of the game. Alongside Diego Godin he is next to one of the world’s best centre backs.
World Ranking: 23rd
Coach: Ricardo Gareca
At the moment Peru seem to be going through a bit of a rebuilding process since the 2011 Copa America when they came third in Argentina. They sit 8th in the group and to be honest chances of qualification look pretty slim. They still have their experienced veterans of Jefferson Farfan and Claudio Pizarro but with a poor run of results and fixtures against the top sides their chances of qualification for Russia are not good. They have young defenders in Pedro Duquena and Ricardo Dulanto that could be stars of the future but for now they need to focus on re consolidation and build towards Qatar 2022.
Strengths They are a well-drilled unit with a good team ethic.
Weakness There is sadly a genuine lack of quality in comparison to their rivals. They are best when they keep the score low as they are well organized in defence.
Star Player Christian Cueva, the winger helped Peru to a third place finish in the 2015 Copa America. He plays his club football in Mexico and is especially dangerous when he cuts in from the left.
One to Watch Renato Tapia, the 21-year-old midfielder has just broken into the Feyenoord team and is an exciting talent in the Dutch Eredvisie.
Coach: Francisco Arce
World Ranking: 37th
Paraguay are currently in 7th place, 1 point above Peru and seem unlikely to qualify with a tough run-in. They are normally seen as perennial over-achievers in South American tournaments and this current team seems particular devoid of star quality. They operate with two quick wingers, and are a cautious team who sit back and then hit teams on the counter.
Strengths: They are a tight unit and are good on the counter-attack.
Weakness: There defence looks very weak against the big teams.
Star Player: Tricky winger Derlis Gonzalez plays for Dynamo Kiev and has previously played for Portuguese champions Benfica. He is a consistent performer for the national side and is good in tight spaces.
One to Watch: Jorge Benitez seems to have taken on the centre forward job since Roque Santa Cruz retired from the national team.
World Ranking: 80th
Coach: Guillermo Angel Hoyo
Traditionally they are the doormats of the South American competition. This year they are second from last with 7 points from their twelve games. They sit back constantly and tend to hit teams on the counter. However, they have shipped 31 goals in 12 games.
Strengths: Team spirit, and the height of La Paz means they could tire some of their opponents out at home.
Weakness: To be brutally honest they lack quality right across the park.
Star Player: Marcelo Martins Moreno plays his football in China and is a veteran striker for La Verde.
One to Watch: Martin Smedberg-Dalence is a Swedish born Bolivian footballer
who plays as a midfielder.
World Ranking: 45th
Coach Rafael: Dudamel
The stats do not make pretty reading for Venezuela who have 5 points from 12 games. Sadly for them they have no chance of qualifying for Russia. The Venezuelan Football Federation are not in a good state with internal fighting between the national team, the manager and their football federation. The future does not look good for them. In Salomón Rondón they have a powerful centre forward, who if used correctly, can score goals.
Strength: Salomón Rondón, the West Brom forward can be a real handful for defences and when Venezuela break he is likely to be the man they turn to.
Weakness: Similar to Bolivia there is a distinct lack of quality right across the park.
Star Player: Salomón Rondón (see above)
One to Watch: The largely underrated Malaga defender Roberto Rosales is a tireless runner.
I fully expect the normal culprits to qualify. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile should make up the four automatic places. Colombia vs Ecuador will be a massive game and the winner will get 5th place and go into the intercontinental qualifier. Peru and Paraguay need to focus on rebuilding for the next Copa America whilst the other two teams have a long way to go before they can be considered.