Tite tinkers, tests Brazil's mental resolve; Argentina looking slightly lost
When Tite went into his first game as Brazil's coach exactly a year ago, six rounds had been played in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying and the team were down in sixth place. But even if they had not picked up a single point before his hire, Brazil would still top the table after 15 rounds. Brazil's run of consecutive victories extended to nine with a 2-0 triumph over Ecuador, which puts them an astonishing 11 points clear of the second-placed side, clinching the top spot with three rounds to go.
There are two reasons for such superiority, both of which were clear on Tuesday night: One is their own excellence; the other is the mediocrity of the rest of the field.
Brazil did not have things all their own way in Porto Alegre. There were times when the defensive deficiencies of both full-backs, Dani Alves and Marcelo, were exposed. And there can also be a problem with the tone in which they play the game. For all his extraordinary talent, Neymar can get carried away with provoking fouls, and then, as the petulance level of the game rises, he can become caught up in the atmosphere and do something silly. He picked up a needless yellow card during a phase in the game when he seemed to have lost his head. This could become a problem in the World Cup, and it is something that Tite needs to get to grips with, especially as his lack of a regular captain means that he lacks a leadership structure on the field.
Brazil's coach, though, will probably be happy that his team had to work so hard to make the breakthrough. Having to wait until the 69th minute for the first goal was a test of the team's patience, and allowed him to get a good look in laboratory conditions at an experiment he has been meaning to carry out. With his recent inactivity and all of the transfer turmoil, Philippe Coutinho was left out of the starting lineup, but was introduced just before Paulinho gave Brazil the lead. Coutinho did not come on for Willian and float across from wide on the left, however. Instead, he replaced Renato Augusto in a more central role -- and as space opened up he gave the side attacking rhythm. The second goal, which he scored after a superb combination with Gabriel Jesus, was the game's undoubted highlight.
This was a third-successive defeat for Ecuador, and they drop from sixth to eighth. But the night was not a complete disaster. They are still in touch with the qualification places, since, Brazil aside, none of the teams who had been above of them managed a single goal.
Uruguay and Argentina played out a depressingly poor 0-0 draw in Montevideo. There were patches when the game was spiteful and others where it was dull -- and even more passages of play that showed the limitations of the two sides.
Argentina, unsurprisingly in their first competitive game under new coach Jorge Sampaoli, looked half cooked. Lionel Messi provided welcome flashes of clarity, but there was almost no circuitry of incisive passing involving Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi up front and, predictably, the defensive unit looked vulnerable. But it was seldom put under pressure by a Uruguay side clearly bereft of all confidence.
The Uruguayans once led the table with an uncomplicated but effective model of play; they pressed the opposition, won the ball close to goal and broke quickly. Now, traumatised by the run of goals they have been letting in and terrified of Messi's talent, they pulled almost the entire team back, virtually playing an 8-0-2 formation. There was no support for Luis Suarez, bravely rushing back from injury, or Edinson Cavani, and very few chances on goal.
Second-place Colombia were also held to a scoreless draw against Venezuela. Boosted by their recent second place in the Under-20 World Cup, the Venezuelans are blooding some of their youngsters in the World Cup qualifiers, such as outstanding goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez. He was at his athletic best in the first half when he produced a reflex save to block a header from Radamel Falcao. Edwin Cardona had freed attacking left-back Frank Fabra to send in a well-flighted cross. It was one of the few moments in the first half when Colombia managed to combine effectively. In the absence of James Rodriguez, not 100 percent fit, Cardona was a disappointing peripheral figure -- a symbol of a side which currently promises more than it delivers.
The surprise result of the night was Chile's 3-0 home defeat to Paraguay. But the writing has been on the wall for a while. Chile may have reached the final of the Confederations Cup back in June, but the tournament in reality brought them just one win and four goals in five games. It is fair to ask whether some of the fizz is going out of an aging generation. Chile's football requires constant high intensity. If the energy levels drop just a bit, there are fewer options for the man on the ball, the team become less of an attacking threat and more open to the opposition counter-attack. They were unlucky to go behind to a flying headed own goal from Arturo Vidal, but thereafter the Paraguayans defended with their customary resilience and broke at pace to wrap up the points -- and bring themselves right back into contention for a place in Russia.
Also there, and level on points with Paraguay, are Peru, who completed an interesting little run of three wins and a draw in the past five games with a 2-1 triumph at home to Bolivia. Haunted by their failure to make it to a World Cup since 1982, Peru made hard work of breaking down the Bolivians in Lima, but two magnificently struck goals in quick succession early in the second half -- from Edison Floes and Cristian Cueva -- proved enough to secure the points. Bolivia's Lionel Justiniano fired over the bar in stoppage time when it seemed easier to score, but Peru held on to set up next Tuesday's visit to Ecuador as one of the highlights of the 16th round.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.