Brazil cruise, Argentina because the race to Qatar heats up in Copa chaos
Whatever the turmoil in the Brazilian camp over participation in the Copa America, their form in World Cup qualifying did not affect them.
Tuesday's 2-0 win in Paraguay took six out of six wins the season and showed a side that seem to be moving in the right direction. The defeat against Belgium in the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup hung over coach Tite for a while, even after winning the 2019 Copa America at home. Now his team has the best attack (16 goals) and the best defense (only 2 goals conceded) in South America. And they have a number of interesting variations too.
For the game in Paraguay, Tite switched to a 4-4-2, with Roberto Firmino and Neymar up front. Firmino drove the Paraguayan defense back and gave Neymar space to pick up the ball and run. The key idea was to put Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison on the flanks – Jesus far to the right, outside the opposing three-way chain, and Richarlison cuts in from the left.
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The tactic took less than four minutes to bear fruit. Right-back Danilo long hit the ball to Jesus, whose cross was almost hit by Richarlison, and instead collected by Neymar, who hit the far post, neatly controlled and slid home with calm competence.
It took Brazil a long time to finish the game but Paraguay barely threatened. Goalkeeper Ederson, surprisingly elected ahead of Alisson, made a great save and flew left to tip when defender Omar Alderete equalized with a brilliant long-range shot. Towards the end there was also a routine parade by substitute right-back Alberto Espinola. And little else – Paraguay hardly seemed to believe that a goal was possible against Marquinhos' so well-placed defense.
Paraguay did better after the break, sending center-back Junior Alonso upstairs to close down Neymar. However, Brazil's number 10 laughed last. In added time, he opened the defense and passed to the right for half-time substitute Lucas Paqueta to get a shot with his left foot off the far post.
Paqueta is an interesting case. He is a versatile figure who can fill almost any role in midfield or attack. On Friday he started against Ecuador in the central attacking midfield. Failing to click there, it was moved far to the right where it probably lacks the pace to be a world champion. And then he dropped deeper into central midfield when Fred was substituted on. This is where his passing game was most useful. It's a role that requires defensive discipline, however, and Tite still has his doubts.
So it was fascinating to see how he steps in for Fred at halftime on Tuesday and operates again in this role. He spent about 25 minutes there and nearly got the team in trouble once or twice. Then he moved forward when Firmino was rested and ended the game on the right, where he scored his goal – something that will work wonders for the confidence of a player still finding his way on the national team.
There is hope that he could replace Renato Augusto, the all-round midfielder who was so influential in Brazil's golden run in late 2016 and through 2017. This is certainly the best Brazil has seen since then.
Ale Moreno wonders if Argentina's upgraded line of defense will be the catalyst to help Lionel Messi win a trophy.
And Argentina has been looking better than ever since the 2016 Copa Centenario, although there are still problems to be solved and it will be unfortunate to have lost two points in the 2-2 draw with Colombia.
For a long time it looked as if all three points were in the bag – but mainly because Colombia did its best right from the start to destroy itself. With two tight center-backs in Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez, coach Reinaldo Rueda will have been confident that his team can handle routine free kicks into the box. But from the first encounter they were overtaken by Cristian Romero, who went home. And with two specialized defensive midfielders, Rueda would have thought it would be impossible for Leandro Paredes to go through the middle and beat the goalkeeper. But it all happened and Colombia were two goals behind in eight minutes. After less than half an hour, Rueda made an offensive move, and there were three more at halftime.
Argentina, on the other hand, looked like a team. With three in central midfield and Lionel Messi, they had interesting possession. And finally there were signs of a better relationship between Messi and center forward Lautaro Martinez. They had a chance to end the game on the counterattack. But when the circuit broke there were signs of vulnerability.
The quality of the defense is the big question mark against Argentina – as it has been for a long time. Tuesday's draw couldn't dispel doubts – though they were unlucky to lose goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who was substituted off after an ugly clash with Mina.
Shortly after half-time, Nico Otamendi, jolted by a cross from the Colombian left, took an unnecessary penalty and Luis Muriel withdrew one. Argentina stepped up their defense and switched to three center-backs, but they still crumbled. With almost the last action of the game, Juan Cuadrado crossed from the right, striker Miguel Borja climbed over Juan Foyth and sent a header through substitute keeper Agustin Marchesin. Argentina are still undefeated – they haven't lost since the 2019 Copa semi-finals – but they are now a full six points behind Brazil.
However, they are three points ahead of third-placed Ecuador, who missed a huge opportunity to make up ground with a surprising 2-1 home defeat to Peru. Ecuador started with two center-forwards and the system never worked. They pushed for much of the game but were always prone to the thrust and movement of Gianluca Lapadula. Born and raised in Italy, but with a Peruvian mother, Lapadula recently cast his lot with Peru. But it seems like the best that can happen to the national team in a while. He set up both goals – one for Christian Cueva and the other for Luis Advincula. The promising Gonzalo Plata was behind in stoppage time for Ecuador.
Both Peru and Ecuador are likely to be relieved that the Venezuela-Uruguay game ended goalless – the third game in a row that Uruguay did not make it to the net. And the round ended with another tie. Chile missed the chance to finish fourth after beating Bolivia 1-1 at home. The only spark for Chile was a goal from midfielder Erick Pulgar – the first time in the season that anyone other than Arturo Vidal or Alexis Sanchez has scored for them. Bolivia secured a point with a late penalty from captain and center-forward Marcelo Martins Moreno that single-handedly hold them in the battle for a spot in Qatar.
But at the moment everyone can dream. There are still 12 rounds to play and the bottom two Venezuela and Peru are only four points behind the qualifying places.