Heroes & Villains: Argentina respond as Brazil fly, United States rock bottom
The international break is full of fun, isn't it? Iain Macintosh looks at the past week's entertainment from friendlies and World Cup qualifiers.
It's unlikely that their fans will forgive them in hurry for losing 3-0 to Brazil on Thursday, but at least Argentina are back to winning ways. A resounding 3-0 victory over Colombia, started with a glorious free kick from Lionel Messi, went some way to improving matters. Had Colombia won, Argentina would have found themselves four points adrift of the CONMEBOL playoff berth. As it is, they're now only a single point from an automatic place. Just don't mention their South America neighbours. Or the media.
It was a slow start, but Brazil eventually turned over Peru to make it six wins in a row. Top of the table by four points, their place at Russia 2018 is now almost certain. New manager Tite has certainly hit the ground running. Not so long ago, Brazil were in Argentina's position, fretting about the nightmare scenario that could see them watching the next World Cup from their sofas. He's improved the mood in the dressing room, shown faith in young players like soon-to-be Man City starlet Gabriel Jesus and put smiles back on faces.
Heroes of the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica are looking good for a swing at the 2018 tournament too. They battered the United States 4-0 to win their second game in a row, all six points secured without the concession of a single goal. Two late goals from Joel Campbell gave the scoreline the sheen it deserved and the US looked desperate for full-time. Can they repeat their extraordinary run to the quarterfinals? Probably not. But at least they look like they'll be there.
And it now looks as though Japan will join them after a wobbly start to the key stage of Asian qualification is slowly stabilised. Japan had lost to the United Arab Emirates and drawn with Australia, dropping out of the automatic playoff slots. But a fine 2-1 win over group leaders Saudi Arabia has calmed the nerves. Manager Vahid Halilhodzic took the bold move of leaving Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki on the bench. Goals from Hiroshi Kiyotake and Genki Haraguchi vindicated his choice.
South Korea were in a spot of bother, losing at home to Uzbekistan. If the scoreline had stayed that way, they would have dropped out of the top two. Fortunately for them Nam Tae-Hee was able to equalise and then, with five minutes to go, Koo Ja-Cheol drove the ball home from close range to save the day. It was all so avoidable. It was only a mistake from goalkeeper Kim Seung-Gyu that had let Uzbekistan lead the way in the first place. Their fans will hope to avoid any more nights like this.
This has not been a good week for the United States and there are serious doubts about the man in charge. Jurgen Klinsmann may not recover from this. Their opening clash with Mexico was always going to be tough and so it proved as they went down 2-1. The U.S. needed a response against Costa Rica. They needed to go out and get back on track in some semblance of style. But instead they were beaten out of sight. They can still recover and it's not over yet. But confidence in them is rock bottom now.
Oh, England. They were within minutes of a surprise victory over Spain when they suddenly went all, well... Englandey. Two goals in the closing stages ruined what might have been a morale-boosting night at Wembley and a very strong negotiating position for manager-elect Gareth Southgate. As if that wasn't enough, the England players' well intentioned "Mannequin Challenge" celebration after Jamie Vardy scored was instantly turned against them. "Dummies!" raged the back pages of three national newspapers on Wednesday morning.
How Uruguay must wish that Chile had listened to Arsene Wenger and left Alexis Sanchez in London to rest. Victory would have put them within touching distance of qualification, and they even took the lead through Edinson Cavani before Sanchez took over. Leg strapped up, he scored two goals in the second half and was withdrawn to a standing ovation 16 minutes before Chile completed their 3-1 comeback. Uruguay still have it all to do.
These are tense times for Australia. They were expected to annihilate Thailand this week, a nation that has never qualified for a World Cup and that had lost all of its qualifiers. But it took two Mile Jedinak penalties just to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw and Thailand were still making chances to win the game as the clock ticked down. With Japan beating Saudi Arabia, the Socceroos are staring down the barrel of the playoffs. That's not what they wanted and certainly not what they expected. They have to improve.
Given that there is so much football now, domestically, continentally and internationally, did Europe really need to cram in a raft of friendly internationals this week? It's a chance for the international managers to shuffle their pack, but not to any meaningful extent given that they'll have so many domestic managers on the phone pleading with them not to play their superstars. When there's a chance to let players rest, we should let them rest. No-one is allowed to moan if they all looked exhausted come the weekend.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.