Argentina and Colombia finding form at the right time, Uruguay slipping
Brazil's charge to secure World Cup qualification with four rounds still to go can be explained in two ways.
One factor has been their own excellence, finding under their coach, Tite, a collective idea of play which has been bringing the best out of their individual talents.
The other explanation is the weakness of the opposition.The overall standard of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers has been disappointing. It is a gruelling competition, and no one is able to maintain consistency over the full 18 rounds. This time, though, few have hit the heights. Brazil aside, no one else can truly be satisfied with what they have produced so far.
In terms of next year's World Cup, this is not necessarily significant. Brazil give the best example. They struggled desperately to qualify for the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea, while Argentina breezed through. Once the competition started, Argentina were knocked out in the first round while Brazil won every game on the way to the title. The World Cup is all about peaking at the right time. Might some of the South American sides be capable of doing just that?
Argentina certainly hope so. They are down in fifth place in the table at the moment and on their third coach of the campaign. But Jorge Sampaoli, so successful with Chile, has gotten off to a good start. True, it is hard to make hard and fast conclusions about a 6-0 win away to a team as feeble as Singapore, though it was fascinating to see Argentina go back to the 1920s and use and old fashioned 2-3-2-3 formation.
Four days earlier, though, the Sampaoli reign got off to a flying start with a 1-0 win over Brazil in Australia, the only game Brazil have failed to win under Tite. This is a real morale boost -- but as always with friendlies, the performance is more important than the result.
What was interesting here was that with hardly any time to train Sampaoli had already implanted a distinct idea of play and a variation, with a high-pressing back three giving way to a more conservative back four once the team were defending a lead. This is highly encouraging as the team build towards the next game, a crunch visit to Uruguay at the end of August.
Uruguay, meanwhile, have real grounds for concern. They have now lost their last five games, and their once tight defensive unit is now shipping goals at an alarming rate.
Colombia also could be moving in the right direction. Since making their debut in the World Cup quarterfinals three years ago they have been consistently disappointing.
Coach Jose Pekerman has plenty of players to choose from -- he might even have too many. In the 14 rounds of World Cup qualification he has used 41 -- an extraordinary amount for a team which has not switched its coach. Seemingly unsure of his best side, or even his best system, Pekerman has been making constant changes in search of a blend. He may be getting there.
Two wins earlier this year lifted Colombia to second in the table -- a surprising position for a team which has only managed 18 goals in 14 games, but one that surely re-enforces the point of general mediocrity. Colombia, though, are quite capable of rising above mediocrity and completed an impressive visit to Spain, drawing 2-2 with La Roja and then thrashing Cameroon 4-0.
It would appear that Pekerman has now settled on a formation. Recently Colombia had often played 4-3-3, and -- very unusual for a side coached by the veteran Argentine -- have sought to get the ball forward quickly on the counter-attack. A clear problem was the tendency to reduce the space in which star man James Rodriguez could operate. The system limited him to a narrow corridor.
But for the two games in Spain, Pekerman went with a 4-2-3-1, allowing Rodriguez the freedom to roam behind a lone striker. Colombia have looked better for it, generating much better attacking play. And the beauty of the system is that it can be dressed up or down. The central midfield duo can be primarily defensive, or Pekerman can select just one to hold and another to elaborate -- which is what happened in the second half against Cameroon.
That approach was hardly tested because the African champions had a man sent off soon after the restart. But it is an option for a Colombia side which is starting to take shape and must now be confident not only of qualifying for Russia, but of doing some damage a year from now.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.