One of the big draws of the 2011 season now drawing to a close was the start of the South American qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. Coming hot on the heels of this year’s Copa America, this tournament was tipped to be more competitive than ever – and so it has transpired.
Four matchdays into the 18-round programme, it is Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador who are occupying the four automatic qualifying berths for Brazil. And while only a point separates the aforementioned quartet, it is the in-form Uruguayans who have been a cut-above in the early exchanges.
With the nucleus of players who stormed to the semis at South Africa 2010, Oscar Tabarez’s continental champions hold a share of top spot despite having played a game less than joint-leaders Argentina and Venezuela. Moreover, Uruguay lead the way in goals-scored as they bid to return to the scene of their legendary 1950 world title triumph. Thus far they have beaten Bolivia and Chile, and drawn with Paraguay in Asuncion, where they had lost on their previous five visits in this competition. If Tabarez’ charges can maintain that kind of rhythm in 2012, they will be firmly on course for consecutive appearances at the game’s showpiece event for the first time since 1986 and 1990.
Under the stewardship of Cesar Farias, Venezuela had already laid down a marker with an impressive run to the semi-finals at this year’s Copa America. Six months on, La Vinotinto, the only CONMEBOL nation never to grace the FIFA World Cup, have a share of top spot and the self-belief to put the record straight. Of their impressive performances to date, a 1-0 victory over Argentina (their first ever against the two-time world champions) particularly stands out. “We’ve earned the respect we now get, but we have our sights set even higher,” said Farias, who was voted Venezuela’s coach of the year for 2011 by the country’s association of journalists.
Despite the absence of Brazil, Argentina have so far failed to dominate proceedings in the manner many predicted. Alejandro Sabella’s Albiceleste may hold a share of top spot, but they have already suffered a reverse at the hands of Venezuela and allowed bottom side Bolivia to pick up their only point so far in an unconvincing draw in Buenos Aires. Not dissimilar is the situation for Claudio Borghi’s Chile, who have had to deal with player-discipline problems as well as two heavy defeats on the road. That said, La Roja’s home form has been solid, with their two wins moving them into the play-off berth in fifth.
Colombia started out with a fine away-win in La Paz but then failed to make home advantage count in their two subsequent fixtures. A draw with Venezuela was followed by defeat to Argentina, precipitating the departure of Leonel Alvarez as head coach. Paraguay have also struggled to find their game as they continue to rebuild under the tutelage of Francisco Arce, while Sergio Markarian’s Peru have shown plenty of potential in their opening fixtures without translating that into points. All in all, it is a complex picture, making it harder than usual to predict what will happen when the competition resumes in June 2012.
Luis Suarez has continued his excellent recent form and leads the scoring charts with five goals, four of which came against Chile on 11 November. Not far behind is another proven marksman, Gonzalo Higuain, who netted his three goals in one game, with the hapless Chileans again on the receiving end. Lionel Messi, now Albiceleste captain, has also shown his class, contributing two goals of his own.
And on the subject of captains, how could we ignore the ever-dependable Diego Lugano in the heart of the Uruguayan defence? The skilful centre-back has been displaying all his usual fighting spirit of late and even weighed in with a brace on the opening matchday against Bolivia.
Colombia’s Dorlan Pavon and James Rodriguez have been two of the competition’s revelations, while Peru’s Paolo Guerrero, top-scorer at the 2011 Copa America, and Ecuador’s Cristian Benitez and Edison Mendez are just three players who have managed to live up to their pre-tournament billing.