No Neymar, no Casemiro, but no problems for Brazil, who maintained their 100% record in South America’s World Cup qualification campaign on Tuesday with a 2-0 away to Uruguay, who were also without key players such as Luis Suarez and Federico Valverde.
But Uruguay did go into the game with morale flying after Friday’s excellent 3-0 triumph in Colombia and, for a while, events seemed to be following their script.
Brazil had most of the ball, but Uruguay are well schooled in when and where to press their opponents. When they won possession, the thrust and mobility of Darwin Nunez was giving Brazil some headaches, and he rattled the underside of Ederson’s crossbar with a fierce strike.
With a mixture of talent, luck and the bizarre, Brazil took the game away from the Uruguayans before half-time. Everton Ribeiro orchestrated the play down the right, and Gabriel Jesus laid back for midfielder Arthur, whose shot seemed innocuous until it took a deflection and beat the keeper Martin Campana to his right.
Soon afterwards, Uruguay centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez led the ball trundle over the line thinking that his side had a goal kick. In fact it was a corner, and the gods of football have a tendency to punish needless set pieces. Brazil took it short, Renan Lodi curled in a cross and Richarlison evaded Rodrigo Bentancur to guide his header inside the far post.
The second half belonged to Brazil’s fine centre-back pairing of Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, who hardly gave the Uruguayans a sight at goal. In a reign of over four years, Brazil coach Tite has only lost one competitive game — that fateful World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium. He must surely regret leaving Marquinhos on the bench for that tournament as his extra speed was certainly missed against the Belgians. Uruguay ran through their repertoire, bringing on Brian and Jonathan Rodriguez to give the extra width. But they could not make an impression, and when Edinson Cavani was sent off for an ugly stamp on Richarlison, it was an act of pure frustration. Martin Caceres did poke the ball into the Brazilian net from a melee following a corner, but it was ruled out for a narrow offside — proof that it was not Uruguay’s night.
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Montevideo’s Centenario stadium was eerily quiet for the event, but Tuesday’s other game between Peru and Argentina had the occasional backdrop of police sirens outside Lima’s National stadium, symptoms of the country’s political crisis.
And the mood in Peru will not have been improved by a 2-0 defeat to Argentina, who, like Brazil, built their advantage in the first half.
Peru have just a single point from four games, and have now lost three in a row. Argentina, meanwhile, have three wins and a draw, and have an unbeaten run of 11 matches stretching back to the semifinal of last year’s Copa America against Brazil.
Rookie coach Lionel Scaloni is making a surprising success of the job. Argentina look like a coherent team for the first time since the Copa Centenario in the United States back in 2016. Lionel Messi seems more integrated into the fabric of the side, at the hub of little partnerships with Leandro Paredes, Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo De Paul in midfield, and with Lautaro Martinez up front.
And, when the collective balance of the side is working, it is easier to introduce new comers. Last month Lucas Ocampos emerged as an important member of the squad. This time, even more surprisingly, it was the turn of Stuttgart’s left-footed Nico Gonzalez. He came in at the last minute against Paraguay last Thursday to play as an improvised left-back, and scored Argentina’s goal. He got the first against Peru, too, latching on to Lo Celso’s pass to make space and beat the keeper with a neat cross-shot. The second came from a fine passing movement, where Messi and De Paul combined to set up Martinez, who slid home after bursting past the keeper.
There is much to admire in Argentina’s play. Nagging doubts remain, though, about the quality of the defence, which has been little tested in the opening four rounds. But that should change in March, when Scaloni’s side host Uruguay and then travel to face Brazil.
The Brazilians, meanwhile, will warm up for the big clash with Argentina by visiting Colombia, who may have a new coach in place by then.
Certainly Carlos Queiroz faces a challenge to stay in his job after a disastrous few days. Friday’s 3-0 home defeat to Uruguay was followed by a 6-1 thrashing away to Ecuador — Colombia were four down before the 40 minute mark, and Queiroz responded by immediately making four substitutions.
A coach who keeps going to his bench before half time is effectively making a public admission that he has lost his way, so it did not augur well when Queiroz made a change after just half an hour against Uruguay. The balance of his side has not looked right since he lost both first-choice right-backs last month.
For all his worldwide experience, Queiroz may not have been well versed in playing at altitude — the Ecuadorian capital of Quito lies 2,800 metres above sea level. It is difficult for unacclimatised opponents, and requires specific planning. The Colombian side were not sufficiently compact, and ran into Ecuador on one of those days when everything went right.
That is not to say the Ecuadorians were lucky. Three wins in four games, and 13 goals scored tells a story. Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro came in at the last minute, but he is proving a good fit. He has always been happiest with counter-attacking sides, and Ecuador are at their best breaking at pace down the flanks. Subtle attacking midfielder Angel Mena has been the surprise hit of the campaign so far, and powerful young winger Gonzalo Plata has been the breakout star, pushed closely by all-round midfielder Moises Caicedo.
With gale force momentum behind them, Ecuador will regret that they have to wait until the end of March for the next two rounds of the marathon campaign.