Fickle Fortunes at CONMEBOL's January Break Qualifiers
Brazil and Argentina have already claimed the top two South American qualification spots for the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar. With that in mind, Ecuador would have entered the first day of the January window aware of the precarious nature of their third-place qualifying position. Colombia desperately needed a win to maintain fourth-place, the final 2022 qualifying position. And, just four goals adrift of Colombia in the standings, fifth-placed Peru had a prime opportunity to leapfrog Los Cafeteros to steal their automatic qualification slot. But how did the initial matchday pan out? With plenty of surprises…
The CONMEBOL Qualifiers
Teams at the South American 2022 World Cup qualifiers are organised into a round-robin league, playing eighteen home and away matches. Only the top four teams can earn direct spots at the 2022 tournament, and Brazil and Argentina have already won their places on points, leaving just two qualification slots open. At the end of the qualifiers, the fifth-placed team will enter the inter-confederation playoffs in June for a last chance at qualifying.
There are just three matchdays remaining after the first matchday of the January window, and the last qualification spots are still open.
The standings after Day One of the January break:
|Brazil (QUALIFIED)||POINTS36||GOAL DIFFERENCE23|
|Argentina (QUALIFIED)||POINTS32||GOAL DIFFERENCE15|
For their first match of the window, Ecuador took on mighty Brazil, unbeaten in the tournament to date. With the home advantage, the Ecuadorians needed to stand their ground against Seleção to maintain their six-point lead over the rest of the group, still fighting for the top qualification spots. The resulting match was wild and chaotic. Within six minutes of the starting whistle, a close-range shot from Casemiro was hammered home to open the scoring in Brazil's favour. To add insult to injury, Ecuador's goalkeeper Alexander Domingo was sent off with a red card for a reckless challenge less than ten minutes later. However, Brazil was handed two red cards within the next ten minutes, reducing the team to nine men. The first red card went to Emerson Royal, the second to goalkeeper Alisson Becker for what appeared to be a high boot that caught Ecuador's defender Enner Valencia in the face. Fortunately for Brazil, the dismissal was rescinded following a VAR review. Bizarrely, Alisson was given a second red card when he punched clear an attack on goal and seemed to catch Ecuador's Aryton Preciado in the face. Once again, the dismissal was overturned; less fortunately for Ecuador, so was their penalty shot. Nevertheless, Ecuador's Felix Torres slotted one home in the 75th minute to equalise and share the points. Ecuador's efforts ensured they maintained third place with 24 points.
Against Paraguay, Uruguay returned to their winning ways after four consecutive losses and only one win from the last six matches of the tournament. The Uruguayans had dropped into seventh place, seven points behind third-placed Ecuador, and urgently needed a win to reverse their falling fortunes. The teams were relatively evenly matched on the day, playing an end-to-end game that saw a frustrating goalless first half. However, a pass from Uruguay's Diego Godin to Luis Suarez, just outside the box, ended the goal drought. Suarez latched onto the pass and fired a superb shot past Paraguay's keeper, Anthony Silva, into the back of the net. The single goal, and Colombia's loss to Peru, boosted Uruguay up the standings into fifth on nineteen points.
Sixth-placed Chile will have been hoping for a decent result against Argentina to climb past or draw level with either Colombia or Peru, sitting in fourth and fifth place on seventeen points each. Chile must have felt relatively confident with Argentina entering the field missing key player Lionel Messi and their coach Lionel Scaloni. Even Argentina's Angel Di Maria's early opener in the 9th minute of the game didn't dampen their ardour. The Chileans pulled back an equaliser just over ten minutes later with Ben Brereton's looping header over the Argentinian keeper, and they continued to dominate on the ball. However, La Roja's qualification dreams took a body blow in the 34th minute as Argentina struck home again. A shot from Argentina's Rodrigo de Paul was parried by Chile's keeper Claudio Bravo, but Laurtaro Martinez took advantage of the rebound and slotted home the winner. Chile dropped to seventh on sixteen points.
At the beginning of the window, Colombia sat in fourth place on seventeen points. However, with not a single win in the last five matches of the tournament, their position was looking tenuous - they desperately needed a win against Peru. However, despite the home advantage and domination of the ball throughout the match, they couldn't convert any of the many chances they created. The Peruvian's defence and the sterling efforts of their goalkeeper, Pedro Gallese, kept the Colombians frustrated. In the end, it was Peru's Edison Flores who broke the deadlock in the 85th minute, sliding the ball past Colombia's keeper David Ospina to take the win. The loss was a major dent in the Colombian's campaign and, together with Uruguay's victory over Paraguay, sent them down to sixth-place. Peru, meanwhile, moved up into fourth on twenty points, just four points behind third-placed Ecuador and giving their qualification hopes a massive boost.
Venezuela took on Bolivia at home for their first match of the window. The Venezuelans have had a tough campaign to date, with eleven losses in fourteen games. The Bolivians, on the other hand, have suffered just eight losses. In tenth and eighth position, respectively, they both needed a win. In their last qualifiers meeting, Bolivia defeated the Venezuelans 3-1. However, with the home advantage, Venezuela was unstoppable from the starting whistle. They pushed hard to create chances, despite relatively equal control of the ball between the two teams. In the first half of the game, the pressure paid off with two goals from Venezuela's Salomon Rondon within ten minutes. Bolivia responded on the offensive and managed to pull one back in the 38th minute with a goal from Bruno Miranda. But, the writing was on the wall for Bolivia when ten minutes into the second half, Venezuela's Darwin Machis scored the third goal for the Vinotinto, closely followed by a red card for Bolivian midfielder Leonel Justiniano Arauz. With that, Venezuela's confidence grew and play intensified. They took control of the game and followed up their three goals with a fourth winning strike from Rondon. Both teams remained in their original positions on the table and, despite Venezuela's win, they will be unlikely to make much of an impact on the table over the next three games.
Third-placed Ecuador is almost sure to join Brazil and Argentina at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, they will need to hold their nerve over the final three matches, especially when facing Peru and Argentina. Peru are just four points behind Ecuador and will undoubtedly benefit from any slip up's La Tri make. Fourth-place Peru, meanwhile, must play both Ecuador and fifth-place Uruguay, who are just one point behind the Incas on nineteen points. Peru will need to fight hard to keep its automatic qualification spot. Following up behind Uruguay in sixth place, Colombia will also be keen to win back its position in the top four, or at least fifth place for another chance at qualification via the playoffs. However, Chile, just one point behind Colombia, and Bolivia, just two points behind, will be snapping at Los Cafeteros' heels!
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