While the European competition is just starting to find its feet, we are already well under way in the Southern Hemisphere as nine teams fight to decide who will be joining Brazil in the first World Cup to hit the continent since 1978. Argentina were the hosts and winners of that competition, and as Alejandro Sabella’s merry men prepare for their 10th clash of the Conmebol qualifiers at home to Venezuela they are looking very comfortable indeed at the top of the pile. We take a look at Friday’s blockbuster in River Plate’s Estadio Monumental, as well as the rest of the action across South America in the first qualifiers of 2013.
Argentina vs. Venezuela
It is bound to be an extremely emotional night in Buenos Aires, whatever happens on the pitch. Venezuela take the field for the first time since President Hugo Chavez, bombastic scourge of the west and also football fanatic, passed away from cancer; an event that appeared to be mourned almost as enthusiastically in Argentina, at least among the politicians, as in Caracas. A few heart-wrenching tributes are almost a certainty before hostilities get underway.
Back to the football, and both teams are battling with absentees. Argentina are without attacking stars Angel Di Maria (suspended) and Sergio Aguero, who despite his injury still filled television screens all week in his home nation thanks to a budding new relationship with honey-tongued Cumbia superstar Karina ‘La Princesita’ (The little princess). After traversing the Atlantic and catching up with his paramour, Kun decided that he wasn’t in fact ok to play and promptly returned to England; Walter ‘The Squirrel’ Montillo and Ezequiel Lavezzi are the most likely candidates to fill the vacancies. The Vinotinto, meanwhile, are without the man who sealed their first ever victory over Argentina, Fernando Amorebieta, back in 2011; Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Andres Tuñez look set to start in defence due to the Athletic man’s absence.
Prediction: Not an easy game at all for Argentina, against an ever-improving rival who find themselves chasing a first-ever place in the World Cup. They should have just enough about them, however, to record a narrow victory.
Look out for: Lionel Messi’s left leg (right). ‘The World’s Best Player’ (copyright every Argentine journalist) took the time on his return home to tattoo son Thiago’s hands on the back of his thigh. If I was a Venezuelan defender, I know where I’d be aiming my kicks.
Colombia vs. Bolivia
Jose Pekerman’s men host the Andean strugglers in the only game of the day that kicks off at a sociable hour for Europeans. The Cafeteros have been on a roll since Jose took over, racking up three straight qualification wins which included a 4-0 destruction of Copa America holders Uruguay. For good measure, the youngsters showed their mettle by beating out the whole continent to lift the South American Under-20 Championship, making for an impressive start to the Argentine coach’s life in Colombia.
The Cafetero team is an intriguing mix of youth and experience, with captain Mario Yepes old enough to be the father of talented upstarts such as James Rodriguez, Luis Muriel and Pescara sensation Juan Fernando Quintero. The one and only Radamel Falcao is also present, and the hosts should be looking to score a hatful against arguably South America’s worst side away from their home in La Paz.
Look out for: A drenching. Torrential thunderstorms are forecast for Colombia’s tropical home Barranquilla, which would at least bring down the temperatures a little – the thermometer habitually reaches 35° with 80-90% humidity.
Uruguay vs. Paraguay
‘The Battle of the Guays’, as it is known by absolutely no-one, brings together the two sides which contested 2011′s Copa America final. Since then, however, things haven’t exactly gone to plan for either the Guarani or the current South American champions. Paraguay have struggled to find their way since losing coach Gerardo Martino following the Copa America, and lie rock-bottom of the Conmebol standings – below even Bolivia. Four consecutive defeats cost Francisco ‘Chiqui’ Arce his job and put Paraguay in serious danger of missing out on the World Cup, although a subsequent 1-0 win over Peru was the faintest glimmer of light in an otherwise dark, depressing 2012.
Uruguay, meanwhile, haven’t fared much better in recent months. For a team that prided itself on defensive solidity, shipping 12 goals in four matches definitely was not part of the plan as they fell to defeat against Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia, rescuing just one point against Ecuador in a run that saw them plummet down the table. Currently teetering in the play-off position ahead of Chile on goal difference, the Celeste should still qualify but they need to find the form of 2010 and 2011, fast – a win against poor old Paraguay should at least soothe some of the pain.
Look out for: Some tasty tackles. Friday’s competitors have the reputation within South America of being the continent’s ‘dirtiest’ sides, and although this is a little unfair we have to admit there is at least a grain of truth. Diego Lugano and Diego Perez are the hardmen to watch on the home side, while for the visitors Jonathan Fabbro combines silky skills with a love of the game’s darker arts.
Peru vs. Chile
New coach, new era for Chile, who unceremoniously dumped Claudio Borghi at the end of 2012 after a serious of painful defeats. The new man, Jorge Sampaoli, is the third consecutive Argentine to take the post, a hero in Santiago thanks to his wonderful work with Universidad de Chile and, most importantly, a disciple of ‘El Loco’ Bielsa and his no-holds-barred approach to the beautiful game. Universidad alumni weigh heavily in the squad – 11 players starred under Sampaoli in the U as they dominated domestically – and this familiarity could weigh heavily as they start as favourites to defeat a Peru side that is yet to find consistency.
Look out for: Twitter bile flying between the two nations. This Pacific rivalry is one of the fiercest in South America, and it doesn’t just stay on the pitch; one of the focal points of the rivalry comes down to the liquor Pisco, which both nations claim as their own with almost terrifying vigour.