Spanish Football stars will be taking time off from La Liga fixtures to compete in World Cup 2018 qualifiers during the international break, which for most players runs from Monday November 11 to Saturday, November 21. Most will be heading to South America to ply their trade in CONMEBOL’s qualifiers. Ironically, they will be entering another football twilight zone as the teams that would typically be leading continental play are mostly floundering while the normally second-tier teams are dominating the standings.
At this year’s CONMEBOL qualifying tourney Chile is the top team in the region and Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay, in second through fourth respectively, are being equally productive. Meanwhile Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina, languish in fifth through seventh place. In fact, the top three teams are all tied with six points and their order on the table is due to a single goal of difference between each team.
Among the top games on tap during this international break are Argentina hosting Brazil, Chile hosting Colombia, and Ecuador hosting Uruguay on Thursday, November 12th, Costa Rica vs. Haiti, Mexico vs. El Salvador, Peru vs. Paraguay, and Jamaica vs. Panama on Friday. On Tuesday, November 17, Brazil hosts Peru, Colombia hosts Argentina, Uruguay hosts Chile, and Panama hosts Costa Rica. Any time Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, and Brazil play their games should all be barnburners as those five are the favorites to progress, four automatically and one via a playoff against a similarly placed team from the Oceania Confederation. But the outsiders, like Ecuador and Paraguay, are having an outsized say in what happens in CONMEBOL.
When Ecuador hosts Uruguay on Thursday the teams will be deciding first place on the table with only the Chile-Colombia game having any added influence over who sits at the top. When Uruguay plays Chile, a few days later, that potentially table-changing match will become the match of the tourney up to that point. At this very early stage of the grueling qualifying trek that is the South American teams’ journey to Russia, Neymar, Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez, and Lionel Messi, have not been major contributors. But Uruguay and Atletico Madrid captain, Diego Godin, Ecuador and Espanyol’s Felipe Caicedo, and Chile and Celta Vigo’s Fabian Orellana, are all having an impact in this qualifying round.
When Colombia plays next, it will be with James Rodriguez back in the line-up, and considering his performance for Real Madrid over the weekend, that should give both of their opponents, Chile and the Messi-less Argentina, pause. The Chileans are mostly healthy and rearing to make history with a very talented roster, the Uruguayans are eyeing the end of an aging generation of superb players, many who will most likely not see Russia come 2018. So they too are looking toward legacy performances as their swan songs.
But when all is said and done, all eyes this week will eventually be on the Super Clasico de las Americas, the biggest national team football rivalry on the planet. The teams of Brazil and Argentina have met 96 times since 1914 and the score line reads 24 draws and 36 wins a piece. Thursday’s match, an early must-win for both teams, will have a decided Argentine flavor as it is to be played in Messi’s country if likely without his participation and that of a few other stars. Coach Gerardo Martino, though, is in the enviable position of being able to substitute for Messi, and the injured Sergio “Kuhn” Aguero, and possibly Carlos Tevez, with the creative offensive power of the likes of Angel Correa, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria, and Gonzalo Higuain.
On the other side of the pitch, Brazilian Coach Dunga has called up an array of players that forms as idiosyncratic a roster as Felipe Scolari’s was for the 2014 World Cup. The current coach has at least learned from one of the 2014 blunders and called up a number of creative talents. So he will have at his disposal Oscar, Kaka, Willian, and Neymar, but will probably only play two of these players at a time. That may not be enough given Argentina’s strengths. Dunga will be missing defensive winger Marcelo who gives the team that added offensive punch on the left flank that Dani Alves provides on the right, so the defensive Filipe Luis might be seen in replacement.
The bottom line will be simple, can Dunga put together the type of creatively offensive line-up that could put Martino’s Argentina on its heels or will he play his long-favored defensive style, with brutish tackling and midfield bruisers, and gamble on scoring off a counter. Martino will doubtless prepare for those counterattacking headaches that Willian and Neymar could provide, but he will probably be thinking more about how to counteract the other eight defensive players Dunga sends on to the pitch. If both coaches play their proclivities an Argentine victory would be the more likely outcome, but with Neymar’s form of late, a draw might be in the cards.
At break’s end CONMEBOL’s World Cup 2018 qualifying standings are more likely to resemble La Liga’s at week five than at week eleven.