Going into the 21st century, Ecuador had never been to a World Cup. They have now played in three, and a 1-1 draw away to Peru on Tuesday takes them very close to a fourth.
It is just possible to find a way that they can be overtaken by two of Uruguay, Peru and Chile, but it is very difficult — not least because Uruguay and Peru meet each other next month in the penultimate round, and Uruguay play Chile in the round after that. And Ecuador would also have to lose a massive advantage in goal difference — over 10 goals better than all of their rivals. It is not 100% confirmed by the mathematics, but it seems all but certain that Ecuador will join Brazil and Argentina as South America’s representatives in Qatar.
It could — and perhaps should — have been sown up on Tuesday night in Lima. The game always seemed set up for the Ecuador counter-attack, which struck as early as the second minute. Centre-back Felix Torres played a long pass over his opposite number Alexander Callens, and Michael Estrada nipped in to control the ball and score with a neat flick.
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An Ecuadorian victory would have sealed their World Cup berth, and they had the chances on the break to kill off the game. But as the second half wore on, they became too negative, overly concerned with running down the clock. Peru were without striker Gianluca Lapadula and main creative force Christian Cueva, but the current Peru side can be guaranteed to dig deep. Coach Ricardo Gareca ran through his attacking options, and was rewarded when the penalty area presence of substitute Alex Valera created enough confusion for Luis Advincula to dink in a clever cross, which Edison Flores, hero of last Friday’s extraordinary win over Colombia, headed home.
The draw means that Peru slip down to fifth place, the playoff spot. They are overtaken by Uruguay — their next opponents in what stands out as the key match of the penultimate round.
Under new coach Diego Alonso, Uruguay continued their revival. Venezuela turned up in Montevideo full of attacking intentions, but Uruguay refused to let them settle, tearing into them from the first whistle. New Tottenham Hotspur signing Rodrigo Bentancur fired Uruguay ahead from the edge of the area — his first international goal in the first minute of the match. Alonso had gambled on Manchester United signing Facundo Pellistri, currently on loan at Alaves, and the right sided midfielder shone on his second appearance for his country. One delightful dribble set up a goal for Giorgian De Arrascaeta. Another ended in a penalty, converted by Luis Suarez. In between, Edinson Cavani justified his recall with a clever overhead kick. Next month will be tense but Uruguay have moved the odds in their favour, with two wins in the last few days carrying them from seventh in the table to fourth.
Sixth-placed Chile have also given themselves a chance with an epic 3-2 win away to Bolivia.
Even a draw would have been a disaster, and chasing the game at the extreme altitude of La Paz is a tough task. True, Chile had spent time at a halfway house — their home match last Thursday was at altitude — though Calama is well below the Bolivian mountain fortress. With Bolivia also desperate for a win, it was going to take something special to tip things Chile’s way, and it was Alexis Sanchez who provided it.
He opened the scoring with a swerving free kick, and clinched the points with a typically intricate solo strike. The second Chile goal was probably the most pleasing, though, because it contained a blend of the old and the new. Just like old times, Sanchez hit a long diagonal ball for the perfectly timed run of rampaging right back Mauricio Isla. He squared for Marcelino Nunez, the best of the new crop of Chilean players, to turn past the keeper.
There was more of the new to celebrate from the performance of keeper Brayan Cortes, standing in for the injured Claudio Bravo. Cortes played the game of his life, keeping the Bolivians at bay when they seemed to be taking command.
The wins for Chile and Uruguay and Peru’s draw are bad news indeed for Colombia, who have enough bad news of their own after completing a barely credible seven games without a goal after a 1-0 defeat away to Argentina. Colombia’s last two games look relatively straightforward but their fate is no longer in their own hands, and the incompetence of others will be needed if they are to grab the play off spot.
There should have been a glint of hope for Colombia in the Argentina line-up, missing not only Lionel Messi but also both first choice centre-backs and two key midfielders. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, then, should be delighted with the way that his patched up side bossed the game with controlled possession, barely giving the Colombians a sniff at glory.
The only goal was a triumph for Scaloni’s tactics. Marcos Acuna was given license to attack from left-back, with winger Lucas Ocampos ready to push inside. Acuna crossed, the presence of Ocampos drew the defence and the ball fell for a cute left footed finish from Lautaro Martinez. Argentina have a commitment to an idea of play, and a much improved defence, operating in front of a keeper who exudes confidence. When Luis Diaz carved out a chance for Miguel Borja, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was out like a greyhound to block the shot, and when Diaz picked up the rebound, Gonzalo Pezzella was on the line to clear. With just one goal conceded in the last eight games, the 2022 Argentina side look a very different act from the shambles of Russia 2018.
Brazil have only conceded five goals all campaign, and were never threatened in a 4-0 thrashing of Paraguay. True, the opposition were dismal, bereft not only of ideas but also of traditional Paraguayan fighting spirit. Even so, there was plenty for Brazil to celebrate. The goals emerged from patient passing, pulling the opposition around until space had been created — with the first two set up by wonderful passes out of defence by Marquinhos. New faces are settling in well: Leeds United’s Raphinha, who scored the opener, is already well established. At the end, substitutes Antony and Rodrygo opened their Selecao accounts, and in between Philippe Coutinho came up with a morale boosting cracker. The formation with two attacking midfielders — Coutinho and Lucas Paqueta — worked well and Matheus Cunha looks to have solved the problem at centre-forward.
Brazil — like Argentina — are entitled to the belief that glory is within their grasp in Qatar. The same does not really apply to Ecuador, for whom glory comes in smaller doses. The first step is making sure of their presence in the World Cup — and barring a mathematical fluke — it would seem to be a case of mission accomplished.