Thursday 22 December 2016, 15:20

Brazil resurgent in an unpredictable race

“It would be nice if the World Cup in Russia started in three days’ time,” said Brazil coach Tite in the wake of his side’s defeat of Peru in November. “It’s a shame the qualifiers won’t be starting up again till next year.” His lament was understandable, given that the Brazilians had just won their sixth consecutive match in the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, all of them since he took over as coach. Thanks to that stunning run, A Seleção have opened up a four-point gap at the top of the table on second-placed Uruguay.

Brazil’s resurgence has been one of the main themes of the CONMEBOL preliminaries in 2016, along with the inconsistent form shown by Argentina, Chile and Colombia, which only seems to confirm the widely held view that South America is home to the toughest qualifying competition of them all.

The main reason for the turnaround in Brazilian fortunes is their new coach, who took charge with the team languishing in sixth place and out of the qualifying places altogether. A mere four months later, they would appear to have one foot in Russia, having put together some very impressive stats. Their six-game winning streak equals the run achieved in 1969 by the side that would go on to conquer the world at Mexico 1970. In the process, Tite’s charges scored 17 goals and conceded just the one, ending the year unbeaten in their eight Russia 2018 qualifying matches, a record no other side in South America could match.

The other chief architects of Brazil’s recovery are Neymar, who is on a high after winning Olympic gold at Rio 2016, and Gabriel Jesus, the most exciting breakthrough player in Brazilian football at the moment, with Willian, Renato Augusto and Philippe Coutinho also playing compelling supporting roles.

Though not quite as impressive, Uruguay also had a good year and look set to book a direct ticket to Russia 2018 and thereby avoid a fifth consecutive play-off. Fired by the goals of Edinson Cavani – the competition’s top scorer with eight – and the assists of Luis Suarez, La Celeste have maintained their 100 per cent record in Montevideo and are out on their own in second, despite only picking up two points from a possible 12 on the road in 2016.

After seeing his side lose in Chile in their last qualifier of the year, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez looked on the bright side: “We’re alive, we’ll keep on fighting and we hope to solve our problems and renew our journey on the road to Russia in March 2017. We’re not home and dry yet, but we are in a pretty good position.”

Ups and downs Three points behind Uruguay lie Ecuador in third and Chile in fourth, who head up a clutch of six teams separated by six points only, all of whom have found consistency elusive in 2016. After making a perfect start to their campaign in 2015, Ecuador went four games without a win this year, though they did manage to get back on track and return to the automatic qualification places.

Similarly afflicted were reigning two-time Copa America champions Chile and star-studded Argentina, who lie fifth. Both sides appointed new coaches this year, though Juan Pizzi seems to have had fewer problems than Edgardo Bauza in giving his side an identity, with the in-form Arturo Vidal leading the way for La Roja with five goals in seven matches.

The presence or otherwise of Lionel Messi in the Albiceleste line-up has always influenced their form, though rarely to quite such an extent as in the eight qualifying matches they played in 2016, the last six of them under Bauza. The Argentinians won four out of five of the matches in which Messi featured this year – and in which he scored three goals – but none of the games in which he was absent, recording two draws and one defeat. The only defeat with Messi in the team was in Brazil. “I don’t think the team is Messi and ten others,” explained Bauza, whose side currently occupy the play-off spot. “We’re up against the best and you pay for your mistakes. We have to work hard to ensure we don’t make any.”

Sixth-placed Colombia also struggled to maintain momentum. After winning their first three games of the year, they collected a mere five points in their last five outings, leaving them out of the qualification places altogether for the first time since late 2015. One place behind them in seventh, Paraguay suffered an even more alarming loss of form. Unbeaten in their opening three games of the year – a run that included a win over Chile in Francisco Arce’s return as coach – La Albirroja then lost four of their next five matches, with not even a historic first win in Argentina making up for the fact that they have been out of the top five since March.

The inability of the sides above them to string results together has allowed Ricardo Gareca’s Peru, who lie eighth, to stay in the running, despite only picking up 11 points out of a possible 24 over the year. That said, the Peruvians have no margin for error in their remaining fixtures. As for Bolivia and Venezuela, who occupy the bottom two places in the table, 2016 was a year when their qualification hopes vanished, with the outlook for the future none too bright for either of them.

Coming up The qualifiers resume on 23 March with Matchday 13, the first of the six remaining, with Brazil’s visit to Uruguay and the duel between Argentina and Chile the day’s big games. On Matchday 14 five days later, Ecuador host Colombia and Peru entertain La Celeste.

The outstanding fixture on Matchday 15, on 31 August, is the River Plate clásico between Uruguay and Argentina, while Brazil’s home meeting with La Tri is another key encounter. Then, five days later, Colombia play host to A Seleção and Paraguay receive a visit from Uruguay.

The qualifiers come to a conclusion with the final two matchdays in October. On the fifth of the month, Chile entertain Ecuador and Colombia welcome Paraguay in two potentially decisive games, given how close the quartet are to each other at the moment. In the final round of games, which take place on the tenth, Brazil entertain Chile and Ecuador host Argentina.