Argentina qualified for the World Cup and stretched their unbeaten run to 27 games, although Brazil should have finished happier with Tuesday night’s goalless draw in San Juan.
Argentina was at full capacity, at least on paper. Lionel Messi was probably not even close to being in top physical condition: He had only played the last 15 minutes against Uruguay on Friday and did not seem to have his usual sharpness. And during the course of the game they lost Cristian Romero, their best central defender, and a key midfielder in Leandro Parades due to injuries. Lautaro Martínez also came out at halftime. It is possible that he was feeling a blow, but his replacement was also an admission by coach Lionel Scaloni that the match was not going according to his plans. Martínez, an absolute center forward, could not get into the game because Brazil blocked Argentina in midfield with great efficiency.
Brazil played without Neymar and Casemiro, players Coach Tite refers to as the technical leader and the competitive leader, respectively. The attack was extraordinarily youthful; center forward Matheus Cunha started for the first time with the national team, Vinicius Junior did the same for the second time, and Raphinha played from the start for the third time. The other member of the attacking quartet, Lucas Paquetá, seems like a true veteran in comparison, but he only consolidated his place in the national team a few months ago.
However, with the help of the wingers, and defenders Danilo and Alex Sandro playing conservative roles, they denied Argentina the spaces necessary to establish their usual passing rhythm in midfield. Compared to the Copa América final in July, it was clear that Eder Militão’s extra speed in central defense allowed Brazil to stay compact higher up the field in order to press more effectively. And if the defensive line was broken, the immaculate Marquinhos was there to cover. Alisson had no major problems on goal. He had to lunge to the left to deflect a shot from Rodrigo De Paul and, in the 89th minute, Messi finally escaped, but kicked right into the goalkeeper.
However, the clearest opportunities came from the other side. Vinicius made a bold hat then a clever pass from Paquetá. Matheus Cunha was even bolder, shooting from almost midfield with Emiliano Martínez out of position. A volley from Fred hit the crossbar after a half-clearance from a free kick, and a rare blast from Danilo assisted Vinicius for a shot that Martinez cleverly saved.
For neutrals, there may not have been much to highlight. Maybe the place didn’t help. The game took place in the north, in San Juan, with the public very close and a frantic atmosphere. Argentina’s usual home, the River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires, could have been the scene of a more cerebral encounter, with more light than heat. But the party left something to learn. Brazil has had reason to worry about their lack of emotional control: they clearly did not do themselves justice when they went out to seek the result in the Copa América final. Here they were put to the test, especially when Nicolás Otamendi got away with hitting Raphinha in the face with his forearm. But they managed to stay calm, with just enough. And with abundant offensive talent combined with a record of just four conceded goals in 13 Playoff games, they can confidently build for the World Cup.
As is the case with Argentina that, although it may not have been at its best this time, has managed to build its most solid, coherent and attractive team in recent years. Their new total of 29 points guarantees them their place in the World Cup because many of the teams behind them have lost points – including Chile, which fell 2-0 at home to Ecuador.
Everything went wrong for Chile in the first half. They were left behind at the start after a shot from the rampant defender, Pervis Estupiñán. Soon, Arturo Vidal was expelled and then Alexis Sánchez limped out. They made a great effort to recover the game, but the points had already been defined towards the break, when midfielder Moisés Caicedo advanced to score his goal that came over the edge.
Ecuador was the big winner of this round. They entered the action comfortably in third place, with a four-point lead, which has now increased to six. This means that they have their guaranteed passage to the last two rounds in third place. So now, they just have to focus on keeping their place facing Qatar.
The defeat of Chile implies that they fall from fourth to sixth place, being out of the qualifying places. They have been outscored by Colombia, despite a disappointing 0-0 draw at home against Paraguay. For both teams it was their fifth match without scoring a single goal. But Colombia has been defending so well that they have only lost one match out of the last 10, and would be approaching the World Cup one point at a time.
In fifth place, the playoffs, is Peru, which has made an impressive comeback since the Copa América in the middle of the year. Their 2-1 road win over Venezuela was open and dramatic, with both squads exchanging blows. Being 1-1, the game was defined with two set pieces. Peru won a free kick on the edge of the area, and Cristian Cueva’s shot deflected from the defensive wall and beat the goalkeeper. Immediately, Venezuela was awarded a penalty. Darwin Machis had already scored a quality goal, but his shot reached a comfortable height for Pedro Gallese to save. Gallese had more trouble towards the end when a shot from Machis went wide, requiring very good reflexes to save the ball. Those moments turned Peru’s single point into three – and the difference could be vital when the competition comes to a close.
Peru is one point ahead of Chile and Uruguay, which have found new ways to self-destruct in their latest defeat, a 3-0 away from Bolivia.
The extreme altitude in La Paz is very challenging for visitors, and for almost half an hour Uruguay seemed to try to accommodate. But there are risks when defending in the background, especially for the goalkeeper. At altitude, the ball flies faster than usual in thin air, making it more difficult for the goalkeeper to study its trajectory.
Bolivia veteran Juan Carlos Arce sent a cross from the left, looking for center forward Marcelo Martins Moreno. He reached out, but couldn’t make contact. The Uruguayan goalkeeper, Fernando Muslera, had to prepare to cover his shot, and when the ball went faster than expected, it slipped out of his hands and entered the goal.
Then, just before the break, Uruguay unnecessarily gave up a corner. His mark was not enough and Martins Moreno gave Bolivia a two-goal lead to leave Uruguay in the dreaded position of having to fetch the match while running out of oxygen. They lost 3-0, a result that keeps Bolivia’s hopes alive, but could perhaps spell the end of an outstanding reign of nearly 16 years for Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabárez.