International breaks. Those fortnights that, at the start of the season, fans of domestic football highlight and attempt to fill with anything other than watching yet more tedious, pedestrian, and often meaningless qualifiers and friendlies. Visitng relatives perhaps, finally getting round to redecorating the living room, or maybe a long weekend staring into the mirror and contemplating each and every mistake you’ve made in your life. But it doesn’t always have to be like this. If the drab climax of England’s World Cup qualification campaign had you reaching for the Zopiclone then you might be better off looking further afield as the qualifiers for Russia 2018 reach the business end.
Big names have already had to rearrange their plans for next summer, as Cup of Nations holders Cameroon, 2010 quarter-finalists Ghana and Algeria have all been eliminated in the CAF region, while Ivory Coast face Morocco in a winner-takes-all encounter in November. In Europe, the Netherlands have been all but eliminated following Sweden’s eight goal trouncing of Luxembourg, and World Cup regulars Czech Republic and Turkey are both out of contention. After a poor start, it looks as though the USA will squeak through the CONCACAF qualifiers having received a scare from Panama in the earlier rounds. But going into the final matchday, it’s the South American section that provides the juiciest set of permutations.
Since the campaign for World Cup ’98, CONMEBOL qualifying has taken the form of a league in which the ten member countries face each other home and away, with the top four securing automatic qualification for the tournament and the fifth-placed team heading into an inter-continental play-off. In the five tournaments since the transition to the league format, Brazil have qualified five times (once as winners, once as hosts), as have Argentina. Paraguay, Chile and Ecuador each have three qualifications, as do Uruguay – though all three of their qualifications have come via the play-offs. Colombia are the only other side to have progressed, on two occasions. In each of the campaigns, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia all struggled to break into the top five, though the high-altitude in Bolivia has helped La Verde record some impressive results, including a 6-1 victory over Argentina during qualification for South Africa 2010.
Qualification for the stronger teams in the group is usually wrapped up fairly early, substantiated by Brazil becoming the first team to secure their place in Russia by Matchday 14 this time round. Venezuela and Bolivia were both eliminated early, and a late winner from Alexis Sanchez put paid to Ecuador’s hopes last time out. Heading into the final round of fixtures Uruguay will be expecting to secure their first automatic qualification as they play host to Bolivia, however the final three spots are very much up for grabs, with two points separating Chile in 3rd and Paraguay in 7th. The Paraguayans had looked all but out during their visit to Colombia on Thursday, when a Radamel Falcao goal in the 79th minute gave the hosts the lead. Incredibly an 89th minute equaliser from Oscar Cardozo was followed by a stoppage time winner from Antonio Sanabria. The visit of Venezuela to the Estadio Defensores del Chaco in the early hours of Wednesday offers Los Guaraníes a perfect opportunity to seal their place at the World Cup, particularly given they’ve only lost at home to Venezuela once in the last fifty years (incidentally the last time the two met in qualification).
Chile’s task is altogether more difficult. If they are to guarantee a spot in December’s World Cup group stage draw, then they may have to get a result in Brazil – a fixture that has seen them register no wins and one draw in the last twenty meetings. The reigning Copa America champions have looked far from convincing in this campaign, despite a 2-0 victory over Brazil in the home leg on Matchday 1. Defeats home and away to Argentina and Paraguay, as well as a comprehensive 3-0 loss in Ecuador have left Sanchez’s side hanging onto third place in the league by a thread.
The most-intriguing tie of the final match-day takes place in Lima, where fifth-placed Peru meet fourth-placed Colombia. That late defeat to Paraguay has downgraded Colombia’s chances of qualifying from ‘Certain’ to ‘Probable’ as they head to a happy hunting ground, where they haven’t lost to their hosts since 1983, though Colombian supporters may feel a twinge of concern given that their team haven’t won in their last three qualifiers. A return of twenty goals from their seventeen games so far suggests Falcao and co aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, though a mean defence that has only conceded sixteen will offer a crumb of comfort. Peru, on the other hand, are the form team in the group, coming into this fixture off the back of a six-game unbeaten streak, culminating in a 0-0 draw in Argentina on Thursday. Their only defeats at home during this campaign have come against Brazil and Chile – the latter a seven goal thriller – while an impressive 4-1 victory in Paraguay showed their ruthlessness in front of goal. Their return of 26 goals so far is short only of Brazil and Uruguay (although three of these were awarded to Peru after Bolivia fielded an ineligible player), though they’ve the leakiest defence in the top seven, conceding 25. Peru are very much the outsiders bet for qualification given the big names around them, the difficulty of their final fixture, and the fact they haven’t qualified for 35 years. But if they secure a win against Colombia it would be the biggest story in South America.
Or would it? Because the final team vying for qualification is Argentina. A side that have more often than not dominated the CONMEBOL section and were World Cup finalists in 2014 are currently sat outside the top five, and need a win in Ecuador to keep their hopes alive. The stalemate with Peru saw Argentina have 13 shots on goal, seven of which were on target, compared to their opponents two efforts, however Pedro Gallesse in the Peru goal was equal to Dario Benedetto and Lionel Messi. That lack of clinical finishing has been a benchmark of this Argentina campaign, with Thursday’s result the seventh time in seventeen matches they’ve failed to register a goal. Two wins in their eight away games thus far is hardly cause for optimism, even if they were at Chile and Colombia, while a defeat in the reverse fixture at home to Ecuador may leave Argentinian fans with a sinking feeling in their stomach. Their hosts aren’t unbeatable, as Brazil, Colombia and Peru will testify, but the fact that they’ve only won once in Quito in Messi’s lifetime will be more than enough to give them a case of the yips. Injury to Sergio Aguero has hardly helped matters, but withholding Europe’s most in-form striker Paulo Dybala against Peru may have been a masterstroke – unless of course Jorge Sampaoli simply doesn’t fancy the Juventus forward. Either way, expect Argentina to go for it as they look to avoid the indignity of failing to qualify for the first time since 1970.
As it stands, the smart money would be on Colombia and Argentina to secure the wins they need to progress, while a point for Chile in Brazil would at least secure them a play-off spot, unless Paraguay go to town against Venezuela. The romantic would love to see Peru secure an automatic place, particularly at the expense of Argentina given the two country’s standings in the game. Either way, its set to be a night of tension and high-drama of the kind you’re unlikely to see a Gareth Southgate team take part in anytime soon.