South American Qualifiers - Round Two's Shocks and Surprises
2020's COVID-19 pandemic wrought all kinds of havoc to the football world, not least to the FIFA 2022 World Cup Qatar qualifiers. The majority of confederations have had to postpone and reschedule their qualifying tournaments. Some have even had to reformat their games to fit them into what has become a hugely crowded football calendar. After all, it's not only the international games that have been cancelled and rearranged, domestic leagues, national, regional and continental games have all suffered this year. The calendar will be stacked for at least another year and a half, if not more.
The South American football confederation, CONMEBOL, have had some tough decisions to make. Their qualifiers rounds are some of the most competitive and challenging, and certainly the longest. Ten national teams each play a home and away game against the other nine, resulting in eighteen rounds spread over more than two years. The pandemic forced the postponement of the first rounds of the tournament, initially set to take place in March and September '20. The rescheduled matches were set for October and November, pushing the whole competition by six months. With the new dates, the tournament is now predicted to end in March 2022 only two months away from the international playoffs, leaving little wriggle room for any further changing of dates. So, though the virus continued and launched into a second wave after the summer with South America having one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, CONMEBOL resolved to play out the October and November windows as planned. Not an entirely popular decision considering the risks to all involved but especially to those travelling to South America to play. However, the October round of the tournament kicked off successfully with numerous internationals making it onto the field and generally low infection rates detected as a result.
On the back of this success, Round Two in November also went ahead...
While the initial round of the tournament went ahead in October, with Brazil and Argentina taking the top spots in the standings and leaving Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia trailing at the bottom, November's matches were still beset with doubts.
Still, at the mercy of COVID-19 and with no fans in stadiums, the games were obviously going to be played under a shadow. But, to add to the sense of foreboding, numerous players were unavailable after testing positive for the virus and a good deal of others were out with injuries. Indeed in the continent's top two teams alone, Neymar was out with an injury for both of Brazil's matches, as was Philipe Coutinho, Fabinho, Casemiro and Rodrigo Caio, with Éder Militão missing after contracting the virus. Lionel Messi was in doubt over ankle trouble but made it in the end, unlike Argentina's Paulo Dybala, Marcus Acuña, Sergio Agüero and Eduardo Salvio. The list of injured players across the board was eye-watering and threw up the question of whether player fatigue was to blame. In an effort to recover the ailing calendar, and to limit the financial costs of the pandemic, games are currently being played back to back with minimal downtime in between to rest and recover. The result, increased risk of injury, to say nothing of the exhaustion affecting form on the pitch.
However, the planned match days went ahead, and the results were better than most could have predicted...
Brazil started and finished the second round of the tournament at the top of the table - the only team to maintain their perfect 100% record of games won in the contest so far. With 12 points out of a possible 12, Brazil has a comfortable lead.
Nonetheless, their victory on November 13th over Venezuela was, to say the least, unconvincing. Their only goal, scored by Roberto Firmino, didn't hit the back of the net until the 67th minute of the game. The Brazillian squad struggled to break down Venezuela's defence despite having the majority of possession throughout the game.
Their performance against one of South America's most renowned teams, Uruguay on the 17th was undeniably improved. Arthur Melo and Richarlison booted home a goal each for Brazil to pick up a full set of points. Uruguay, who have not beaten Brazil since 2001, failed to hit the back of the net, despite hitting the woodwork twice in the first half.
With 10 points on the leaderboard, Argentina maintained their position in second place, though dropped points in their draw against Paraguay.
The 1-1 match against Paraguay on November 13th was always going to be hotly contested after Paraguay won their last World Cup qualifier match against Argentina and have only lost one out of seven of their previous away qualifier matches to their rivals. However, the game was also blighted by VAR inconsistencies, one of which denied a goal by Messi, which would have seen the Argentine squad maintain their 100% win record in the tournament so far. Argentina's manager, Lionel Scaloni, blasted the referee and the VAR system calling for the criteria on fouls to be more soundly agreed.
In their match against Peru on the 17th, the Argentine's picked up full points when Nicolas Gonzalez and Lautaro Martinez both found the goal giving the team a comfortable 2-0 win against the Peruvians.
Ecuador has been the surprise performer of the tournament to date. Sitting just behind Brazil and Argentina in the standings with 9 points from four games, having lost only to Argentina.
Against Bolivia on November 12th, the Ecuadorian squad won a thrilling 3-2 victory in La Paz, a notoriously difficult high altitude location for away teams. The game saw Bolivia take an early lead, only to have Ecuador go-ahead two goals later, and a goal from Bolivia's Marcelo Martins in the 60th minute spelt a draw for the teams. However, in the dying minutes of the game, Ecuador's Carlos Gruezo thumped a penalty home to win the match.
Buoyed by their success Ecuador went on to decimate Columbia on the 17th at home. The Ecuadorians walloped their way to a 6-1 victory!
Paraguay maintained its position in fourth place on the table after two draws, one at home and one away, gave them 6 points.
In their match against the Argentine squad on November 13th, the Paraguayan team held their own against Scaloni's undefeated team. Paraguay's Angel Romero provided the opening goal in the 12th minute of the game, which was equalised by Argentina's Nicolás González. Romero however, picked up a yellow card (with some calling for a red card) for a dubious tackle on Argentine Exequiel Palacios, which left him with a fractured spine.
Again, against Bolivia on the 17th, the Paraguayan squad tipped to win the match, drew level on home ground.
Uruguay's tournament to date has been a mixed bag, two loses and two wins. The team currently sit in fifth place on the table with 6 points.
Away against Columbia on November 13th, the Uruguians, who last won a qualifier against the Columbians in 2008, clobbered their rivals 3-0. A much-needed win after their defence collapsed against Ecuador in October. The team's attacking duo, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, both scored a goal each, followed up by a goal in the 73rd minute by Darwin Núñez.
On the 17th, the squad squared up to Brazil. However, the team, already missing key players Martín Silva, Sebastián Coates, Federico Valverde and Maxi Gómez, also lost Luis Suárez, Rodrigo Muñoz and Matias Viña to COVID-positive results before the clash. Brazil scored twice leaving a goalless Uruguay with a series of red and yellow cards that could cost them dearly.
Having picked up just 1 point in the opening round of the tournament, Chile needed to up their game this round. And, with a 2-0 win over Peru and a 2-1 loss to Venezuela, the squad managed to climb to sixth place with 4 points.
At home against Peru on November 13th, the team's captain, Arturo Vidal scored a brace (19th and 34th minutes into the game) to give the squad their first win since the tournament began.
Taking on the Venezuelans on the 17th, who failed to bring home any points in the opening round, the Chileans were tipped to win. However, despite having won the last five qualifying meetings against Venezuela and having the better team, only managed to score one goal to their rivals two.
Seventh in the standings with just 4 points and with only one win under their belts, the Columbians have had a disappointing run in the competition to date. Losing to Uruguay and Ecuador this round saw the team drop from third place where they sat at the end of the first round.
At the meeting against Uruguay on November 13th, the Columbians suffered their worst defeat on home territory for the last eight decades. And, to top it off, Yerry Mina, the team's top World Cup goal-scoring defender, left the match on a red card.
Things went from bad to worse in Quito on the 17th against the Ecuadorian team. Thrashed 6-1, the squad headed home having conceded six goals for the first time in forty-three years of qualifiers.
Venezuela is eighth on the leaderboard after the second round of games. With three loses and one win under their belts they will start the third round in March with 3 points.
Though they lost to football powerhouse Brazil at the November 13th match, the Venezuelans put up a good fight. Their defence kept the Brazilians at bay for most of the game, though the squad gave Brazil’s keeper little to worry about.
The meeting with Chile on the 17th panned out much better for the Venezuelan squad. Luis Mago gave the Venezuelans the lead with an opening goal in the 9th minute, equalised shortly after by Chile's Arturo Vidal. However, Salomón Rondón put one away for Venezuela in the 81st minute to seal a win for the team.
Peru dropped one place to ninth in the standings after losing to both Chile and Argentina. With only 1 point, Peru will need to pull everything out of the bag going forward to adjust their current fortunes. Hopefully, team captain, who was missing for this round, will be back on board to help steer the squad in March.
Remaining at the bottom of the table, Bolivia did improve their standings slightly after this round in a draw against Paraguay, which saw them gain 1 point. The team managed a respectable 3-2 finish to Ecuador, in what was a fairly exciting game. Against Paraguay, they held their own with a 2-2 draw, in what was considered to be an easy win for the hosts.
To add to the excitement during the head to head with Ecuador, Bolivia's interim football federation president, Marcos Rodriguez was arrested in the stands - the charge, possible corruption!
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