Messi magic; Bolivia's summit issues
With Brazil 2014 now just two years away, the race for qualification is hotting up in South America, where we're starting to get a picture of the likely contenders after the latest double round of qualifiers. The suspects in question are pretty much the usual ones, but that's not stopped one or two interesting results over the last week-and-a-bit.
The biggest winners, of the sides who played in both rounds of the double header at least, were Chile, who had two potential banana skins to step over on away trips, and managed in both cases to walk quite comfortably around them without slipping up. On Saturday, June 2, they were in La Paz to take on Bolivia, and claimed a 2-0 win with a goal in each half from Charles Aranguiz and Arturo Vidal. It was the second time in a row that Chile had recorded a 2-0 away win over Bolivia and was enough to keep them in the running for the top spot in the group, which they claimed on Saturday just gone with another 2-0 away win, in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela.
This was the same stadium in which Argentina had been handed their only defeat of the qualifiers so far, in their second match back in October last year, so it's fitting that Chile's win against the ever-improving Venezuelans took them ahead of Argentina in the standings, albeit having played a game more. (Brazil's absence from the qualifiers this time round means one side has a free date on each round of matches, and this weekend just gone it was Argentina's turn for a rest.)
They didn't take a rest, of course, but instead travelled to New Jersey for a money-spinning friendly against Brazil. If you were watching Germany v Portugal (or indeed any other match), which was played at almost the same time, do have a look for the Argentina v Brazil goals on YouTube, as in spite of being a non-competitive match it was thoroughly good entertainment, and featured Lionel Messi's second hat trick for Argentina - his second, in fact, in 2012. The last man to score a hat trick against Brazil, friendly or otherwise, was Paolo Rossi in that legendary match in Spain 1982, and the last time it was done by an Argentine was over half a century ago - Jose Sanfilippo in the 1959 South American Championship (since renamed the Copa America).
It came a week after a more important and arguably no less impressive performance from Messi had helped Argentina batter Ecuador 4-0 in the Estadio Monumental. What many of manager Alejandro Sabella's critics claimed was too defensive a team playing in a 4-3-3 actually turned out to be a 4-2-3-1 (Angel Di Maria was one of the midfield three, and pushed on further than Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago), and goals from Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Messi and Di Maria meant that this 'defensive' Argentina side have now scored eleven goals in their last three matches - two of which, it must be said, were friendlies.
What Sabella is doing, but what an awful lot of critics don't want to or can't see, is ensuring he has as solid a backline as he's going to get from the players available, in the knowledge that then and only then will his stellar forwards be free to do their thing without being hamstrung. Argentina are still a work in progress but they're not a bad side, they will surely keep improving, and perhaps ominously for the rest of the world, contain a Lionel Messi who no sane observer would continue to argue 'doesn't do it for his country' (although astonishingly, at a party just hours after he tore Ecuador to pieces, two guests tried to explain to me why that's precisely the case, and why Carlos Tevez should be the man the national side is built around).
Uruguay were held at home by a late equaliser from Venezuela's Salomon Rondon, but recovered a week later to claim a 4-2 win over Peru, also in the Estadio Centenario, which means they're a point ahead of Argentina and one behind Chile (Chile have played six; Argentina and Uruguay, five). Ecuador recovered from that Messi-inspired thrashing to win 1-0 over Colombia in Quito, and are fourth, only a point behind Argentina from the same number of games. Fifth spot – and a place in a playoff against an Asian side – looks like a scrap between them, Colombia and Venezuela.
Peru, after impressing many of us at last year's Copa America, seem sadly to have become the whipping boys now, having won one and lost four of their five matches. More surprisingly, Paraguay have started the qualifiers dreadfully, and defeat on Saturday away to Bolivia, 3-1 – surprisingly the first points Bolivia have claimed at home, in their third match in La Paz – was too much for the APF to take, and they sacked manager Francisco 'Chiqui' Arce immediately after the match. Next, they visit Cordoba to take on Argentina in September, so the new man, whoever he may be, will have a baptism of fire.
Colombia's defeat to Ecuador was the first under their new manager, Argentine Jose Pekerman, who had started well. It was only his third match in charge (and only his second competitively), so he's likely to have breathing space yet, especially as just a third of the way into the qualifying group, it's still anyone's to take control of.
Next up in September, as well as Paraguay's trip to Argentina there will be a clash of high altitude specialists in Quito, where Ecuador host Bolivia, and Uruguay will visit Colombia before hosting Ecuador. Colombia have a tough couple of assignments, because after welcoming Uruguay they'll be away to Chile. Argentina will host Paraguay and then visit Peru before, in October, they play Uruguay at home. There's a long way to go yet on road to Rio, but Argentina, Uruguay and Chile at least look well set for the journey.