Brazil first to qualify for World Cup, Argentina tumble
SAO PAULO: A resurgent Brazil squad under new management became the first team to qualify for the World Cup on Tuesday, the same day arch-rivals Argentina’s Russia 2018 campaign stumbled after the shock suspension of Lionel Messi.
Five-time champions Brazil had been left waiting in suspense after goals from Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Marcelo handed them a 3-0 win over the Paraguayans at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians.
But Uruguay’s upset 2-1 defeat to Peru in Lima in the day’s final South American qualifier ensured they would finish the 10-nation group in the top four, guaranteeing them a berth at the Russia finals.
Brazil lead the standings on 33 points with four matches to play, 11 points ahead of arch-rivals Argentina who slipped back into fifth after a 2-0 defeat away to Bolivia without captain Messi in the altitude of La Paz, putting coach Edgardo Bauza under intense pressure to step aside.
The top four in South America earn direct places at the World Cup. The fifth-ranked South American team goes into a playoff against a team from Oceania for a spot in Russia.
While Argentina struggled, Colombia had a 2-0 win at Ecuador, posting their first win in Quito in 20 years and ended the day in second spot in qualifying with 24 points. Ecuador dropped out of the top five for the first time, slipping to sixth with 20 points.
Also on Tuesday Copa America champions Chile beat last-placed Venezuela 3-1 in Santiago and climbed back to fourth spot with 23 points.
Peru are seventh on 18 points, ahead of Paraguay on goal difference.
Qualification completes an astonishing turnaround for Brazil, who less than a year ago were in crisis after taking only nine points from six games.
That run of results had left the Brazilians outside the qualifying places in sixth place.
The further embarrassment of a first round exit at last year’s Copa America Centenario only deepened the sense of despondency.
However the sacking of former coach Dunga and the appointment of former Corinthians coach Tite was the catalyst for a Brazilian resurgence.
That revival saw Brazil take maximum points from their next eight qualifying games.
“When I look at my family — the players — and when we talk to the fans and see how happy they are, that’s when you think ‘I’m part of something very special,’” Tite said after Brazil’s qualification was confirmed.
Against Paraguay, Brazil were already in party mode, with Coutinho opening the scoring on 34 minutes following a deft one-two with China-based midfielder Paulinho.
Neymar had a chance to make it 2-0 in the 53rd minute from the penalty spot only to see his kick saved by Anthony Silva.
Stung by the miss, Neymar made up for it 10 minutes later, scampering down the left wing from inside his own half, skipping tackles and driving into the box before beating a wrong-footed Anthony Silva with a shot that took a deflection off a defender.
Left back Marcelo put the icing on the cake with another fine goal in the closing minutes.
NO MESSI, BIG PROBLEM
While Brazil celebrated, Argentina and Messi were left digesting another stumble in their progress towards Russia.
Argentina had been rocked just hours before kick-off after confirmation Messi had been hit with a four-match ban following a ruling from disciplinary chiefs at world governing body FIFA in Zurich.
The Barcelona superstar was stunned after being suspended for four of Argentina’s five remaining World Cup qualification matches for swearing at an official in a game against Chile last week.
From a TV set in the locker room, Messi saw Argentina little by little fade into an average side outrun by the Bolivians at the 3,600 metres of altitude with Juan Arce and Marcelo Moreno scoring either side of half-time.
Arce headed home a cross from Pablo Escobar in the 32nd minute to open the scoring for the hosts before Moreno fired home from close range in the 52nd.
“We are alive and we want to qualify for the World Cup. This is a fight that we will keep fighting,” Bauza told a post-match news conference, before admitting there were big concerns within the squad. “Yes, the players are worried because no one likes to lose.”
Argentina’s next games will be in August at Uruguay and in Buenos Aires against Venezuela. In October, the World Cup finalists will face Peru at home and Ecuador in Quito.
Peru’s win kept alive their own faint hopes of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1982.
Carlos Sanchez turned in Luis Suarez’s pass to give Uruguay the lead after half an hour but Paolo Guerrero levelled four minutes later and Edison Flores gave Peru a deserved win with an emphatic finish just after the hour.
Uruguay’s unhappy evening ended with a red card for substitute Jonathan Urretaviscaya in the 75th minute.
In Quito, Real Madrid star James Rodriguez scored one goal and set up another for Juan Cuadrado as Colombia beat Ecuador.
Rodriguez was only five years old the last time Colombia had an away win at Ecuador and he started to break the Colombian drought at 20 minutes.
Almost accidentally, Rodriguez touched the ball with his back after a low cross from Borja and it slowly went inside. At 32 minutes he started a play that finished in a similar goal scored by striker Juan Cuadrado with his feet, though.
Ecuador’s chances of a comeback were diminished when defender Luis Caicedo was sent off after a rough challenge on the hour.
Chile moved up to fourth place with victory over Venezuela, Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez opening the scoring with a stunning early free-kick.
Esteban Paredes scored twice for Chile to give the host a 3-0 lead before Salomon Rondon pulled a goal back for Venezuela.
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