Mar 27, 2013, 3:06 PM EDT
Now past the half-way post on South American qualifying, three nations have distinguished themselves as favorites to qualify for Brazil 2014. Argentina, led by a captain (that guy to the right) that has closed his club-country divide, is four points at the top (24 through 11 games). Ecuador, who qualified for two World Cups before missing out on South Africa, sit second and have a game in hand on Argentina. Colombia, also with a game in hand, sit one point back of their neighbors. The trailing pack of Venezuela, Chile, and Uruguay are each at least four points back, and each have played one more match than the pair from the north.
Look at the underlying numbers and you find little reason to think the lead three can be caught. They’re the only teams in the qualifying tournament with positive goal differences (Argentina having posted a remarkable +16 through 11 games). Theirs have been the three best defenses on the continent as well as the three best attacks. A serious drip in form will need to happens for any of the top three to miss out on Brazil.
That leaves the region’s other six aspirants vying for two spots: one an automatic qualifier; the other going into a playoff against an Asian nation. Paraguay’s been miserable, collecting only eight points (and eight goals) from 11 games. They have no real chance of returning to the finals, nor do Bolivia, who sit one point higher thanks to their draw on Tuesday with Argentina.
As far as the remaining contenders are concerned, they would each bring a unique and compelling story to Brazil, though only two of them (at most) will qualify.
Chile, one of the quiet darlings of the last World Cup, sit fourth thanks to Tuesday’s win over visiting Uruguay. After the departure of Marcelo Bielsa in Feb. 2011, the nation had struggled to maintain the momentum they carried out of the 2010 qualifying cycle. With former Universidad de Chile head coach Jorge Sampaoli having taking the reigns earlier this year, optimism is starting to return, even if Chile suffered a mild setback Friday at Peru (1-0 loss).
Venezuela, the only nation in this tournament to never qualify for a World Cup, sits fifth. For the first time in their history, they were actually expected to compete for a spot in the finals, their semifinal appearance at the 2011 Copa America crystallizing the ambitions of an emerging soccer nation. Unfortunately, those ambitions haven’t translated into goals, with the Vinotinto having found the net only nine times in 11 games. Salomón Rondón and Juan Arango have combined for six of them.
As Michael noted, Uruguay sits on the outside looking in as of now, and while they’re only two points back of an automatic qualifying spot, their poor form fuels the notion the South American champions could be left out. It’s been six rounds since La Celeste won, with Friday’s home draw against rock bottom Paraguay cementing the notion this team’s experiencing more than a slump. Fortunately for Óscar Tábarez’s side, a process that could qualify over half its teams is ultimately a pretty forgiving tournament (just ask Diego Maradona).
And finally, there’s Peru, who haven’t qualified for a World Cup in over 30 years. Like Venezuela, they were surprise semifinalists at the last Copa, and like Venezuela, they’re having trouble scoring goals in qualifying. But a Friday win over Chile puts them in a similar boat as Uruguay. They’re a little farther back (four points instead of two), but if they find the form that carried them two summers back in Argentina, Sergio Markarián’s team can make it back to the finals. At a minimum, they can put themselves in position to team advantage should others slip up.
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