Brazil made to work as they qualify for World Cup

It was nowhere near as scintillating as last month’s 4-1 dismantling of Uruguay. But Brazil’s 1-0 win over Colombia in Sao Paulo was just as intriguing — and not just because, with plenty of the qualifiers still to come, it sealed the Selecao‘s place at next year’s World Cup.

Where last month Uruguay were blown away in the first 15 minutes, this time Brazil had to work hard for their win, explore their range of options and have their temperament tested.

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Colombia had already held them to a goalless draw in October — the only time Brazil have dropped points in the campaign — and coach Reinaldo Rueda had clearly done his homework. He had to patch up a defence that had kept three consecutive clean sheets, with three of his first-choice back four injured. And so Rueda made a point of blocking Brazil in midfield. Wilmar Barrios, one of the best markers in the business, held the fort. Either side of him, Jefferson Lerma and Yairo Moreno were strong, athletic barriers, closing down the so-called “half space” — the corridor a few yards in from the touchline where Brazil had done such damage against Uruguay.

The Colombians even had some first half opportunities with Duvan Zapata and Luis Diaz shooting narrowly wide. But the longer the game went on, the clearer it became that it was boiling down to the question of whether Brazil could play their way through.

Coach Tite started with his preferred line-up with Raphinha as a flying winger on one flank, Lucas Paqueta to construct from the other. At half-time he admitted defeat. On came Vinicius Junior, with Paqueta moving back and infield to give a more attacking twist to the role that the replaced Fred had been filling. Having to deal with the pace of Vinicius pulled the Colombian defence towards the flank, opening up space through the middle for Neymar and Paqueta to work on a partnership that has been one of the best things about the Brazil team over the last few months. And it broke the deadlock, just inside the last 20 minutes.

The goal was a tribute to the value of the quick diagonal pass. Centre-back Marquinhos made a typically classy interception, slid the ball diagonally left to Neymar, who laid off first time diagonally right to Paqueta, who beat the keeper with a cross-shot hit off his weaker right foot. Colombia threw on James Rodriguez, but never threatened a reply, and after just 12 matches in an 18-round campaign (remembering that September’s clash with Argentina was suspended after just five minutes) Brazil are already over the line.

After the end of their eight-game unbeaten run, Colombia have slipped to fifth, and will move down to sixth — outside the intercontinental playoff place – if Uruguay avoid defeat to Argentina on Friday.

Four points above them, and now even more comfortably in third place, are Ecuador, who beat Venezuela 1-0 in Quito.

There were some nervy moments at the end for the home crowd, with Venezuela threatening their first away point of the campaign. Against the team at the bottom of the table, it was seen as a must-win match for Ecuador, whose attacking resources were depleted by injuries and suspensions. Coach Gustavo Alfaro has put his faith in youth, and was rewarded when three of his young stars combined to turn first-half domination into a lead shortly before the interval. Brighton’s former England youth international Jeremy Sarmiento ran at the Venezuelan defence and won a free-kick, Gonzalo Plata curled left footed into the danger zone and centre back Piero Hincapie beat the keeper with a diving header.

Ecuador’s next opponents are Chile, who have played themselves into contention. After seven games without a win they have now put together three consecutive victories, climbing into fourth place with a 1-0 win away to Paraguay.

This was a direct dispute between two teams who went into the round out of the qualification places, and it did not disappoint. Paraguay were playing their first game under new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto. He picked the same players as his predecessor, fellow Argentine Eduardo Berizzo, but the idea seemed clearer. Berizzo is a protege of Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa. But the all action, high-press approach is a strange fit for Paraguay, who have traditionally specialised in deep defence.

Under Berizzo this contradiction was never satisfactorily defined. Schelotto dropped the team into their own half, looking to open up space for the speed of Miguel Almiron on the counter attack. Chile, meanwhile, moved the ball with the confidence of a side coming off two wins last month, but found it tough to break down the Paraguayans and create clear chances. And then the old guard came to the rescue. Arturo Vidal found space for a vicious shot which Paraguay keeper Anthony Silva did well to tip over. He did less well from the corner, especially with the bizarre decision not to place a man on the near post. Alexis Sanchez curled in right footed from the left, Vidal stretched to volley but made no contact, and the ball struck Silva and crossed the line. In 13 matches, Paraguay have only managed to beat Venezuela, and need a miracle to make it to Qatar.

Peru need something less. They are just two points off the qualification slots after a 3-0 win at home to Bolivia. With Bolivia also needing a win, an open game was always likely. After two wins last month, followed by victory over El Salvador in a friendly last Friday, Bolivia felt able to pick an attacking side and chase the game. It proved a miscalculation. They were blown away by three first-half goals — and Peru now travel to Venezuela in the knowledge that another win on Tuesday will haul them back into contention.

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