Monday, 14 November 2011

Uruguay steal a march

Picking up where we left off last month, the road to Brazil continued with another double round of fixtures and it was all about as South American as you've come to expect.

Round 3

Argentina 1-1 Bolivia
Uruguay 4-0 Chile
Paraguay 2-1 Ecuador
Colombia 1-1 Venezuela

The main stories of the third round of fixtures in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying competition both centred around the game in Montevidéo where Chile were the visitors and it was they who made the early headlines as the game happened to coincide with the baptism of Jorge Valdivia's daughter. A joyous occasion, no doubt, and one that Valdivia enjoyed in the company of his team-mates Gonzalo Jara, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Carmona and Jean Beausejour to the point that they rocked up to the team hotel after curfew and a touch the worse for wear. Manager Claudio Borghi summarily sent the lot of them home. Jara was an injury doubt for both games and Beausejour was suspended for the Uruguay match, but all five are big players for the country and would be missed. Meanwhile, Luis Suárez was about to put his issues emanating from Liverpool's Premier League clash with Manchester United some weeks ago behind him and come up with his finest display for his nation as he bagged all four goals as Uruguay routed the sorry Chileans. His first came three minutes before the interval, a low, scudding shot from 20 yards that found the bottom corner and he made it two in first-half stoppage time. Gaston Ramirez put pressure on Chile keeper Claudio Bravo who dropped a cross at the feet of Edinson Cavani whose attempted lob was headed off the line. Suárez was following in though and nodded it back past the defence for a 2-0 half-time lead. Midway through the second half and Suárez completed his hat-trick with a superb header following some great work up the right hand side from Diego Pérez and Martín Cáceres who supplied the killer ball. And the fourth followed six minutes later, though Suárez did rather nick it off Cavani's toes as he smacked it right-footed from the edge of the box.
With Peru the side to sit the third round of games out, Uruguay's big rivals for top spot failed to match la Celeste's result which left them clear at the top. Most surprising was Argentina's draw at the Monumental with lowly Bolivia - very much the least fancied side in the competition. Argentina battered them. Chance after chance came and went - Javier Pastore, Gonzalo Higuaín and Lionel Messi all went close - and they had the ball in the net twice, but were twice pulled back for offside. That failure to take chances bit them hard when Marcelo Martins seized on some lackadaisical defensive work from Martín Demichelis and fired Bolivia ahead. Ezequiel Lavezzi came on following the goal and brought Argentina level almost immediately with a beautifully curled effort from the edge of the box.
Without star man Radamel Falcao, Colombia could only manage a draw against fast-improving Venezuela, but Fredy Guarín put them ahead with an early thunderbolt from all of 30 yards. They couldn't find a second though and were made to pay late on as a long ball wasn't dealt with and substitute Frank Feltscher nipped in to level it up in the Barranquilla downpour.
Paraguay notched their first win of the campaign at home to Ecuador and were ahead a couple of minutes into the second half as Cristian Riveros got round the back to meet a deep free-kick and turn it in. Ten minutes later and another set piece undid Ecuador, Dario Veron with a splendid diving header to double the lead. Ecuador did get one back late on, Joao Rojas walking past a statuesque defence to get on the end of an Edison Méndez cross and head in.

Round 4

Colombia 1-2 Argentina (some jerky footage - careful if you suffer from vertigo)
Ecuador 2-0 Peru
Chile 2-0 Paraguay
Venezuela 1-0 Bolivia

Uruguay, unbeaten in the competition, sat out round four safe in the knowledge that someone would have to go golo-loco to dislodge them from top spot and went off to Italy for a friendly. Which they won. They are, however, joined at the top of the standings on seven points by two other nations.
Argentina needed a late, late winner from Sergio Agüero to see off a determined Colombia side, still without star man Falcao. They had to come from behind as well after Colombia went ahead in the last minute of the first half through Dorlan Pabon's free-kick from the edge of the box, though the final touch was Javier Mascherano's, just enough to turn it past Sergio Roméro. Cometh the hour; cometh the man. Lionel Messi hasn't been getting the praise by his countrymen that we Europeans are used to dishing out to him, but he started the move that got Argentina back into it. He took it past two men and shipped the ball wide for José Sosa. His cross was too near David Ospina, the Colombian keeper, but he couldn't hold it. Messi, following through, tidied up and squared matters. And that's how it looked to be staying until Messi, again, took on the defence and fed Gonzalo Higuaín. His shot wasn't held - again Ospina at fault - and Agüero swooped to snatch the win.
The other side that join the favourites on seven points are everyone's new favourite underdogs Venezuela. Bolivia had the better of the early exchanges, but found Renny Vega in inspired form in the Vinotinto goal. On their first real foray into Bolivian territory, Venezuela earned a corner which was met with a towering header by Oswaldo Vizcarrondio - not for the first time this campaign - for the opening goal. The second half was wide open, but Bolivia didn't work Vega enough and Venezuela held out for a well-earned win and a share of top spot that their steady improvement over the last four years has warranted. Bolivia look to have no chance.
Two late goals helped Ecuador get past Peru and into fourth place. Cristian Benitez laid the first on a plate for Edison Méndez after a surging run down the middle of the park and Benitez finished the second after brilliant work from Jaime Avoyí down the left hand side. Chile put their disappointments from the Uruguay game behind them with a morale-boosting win over Paraguay. A Matías Fernández corner was met with a bullet header by Pablo Contreras midway through the first half to give Chile the lead. They wrapped up the three points late on as Mauricio Isla teed up Matias Campos whose 20-yard effort took a huge deflection to loop over Diego Barreto and in for 2-0.

The competition goes into cold storage now until June next year when everyone will reconvene for another double-header.
On June 1st 2012, they line up like this:
Argentina v Ecuador
Bolivia v Chile
Peru v Colombia
Uruguay v Venezuela

And a week later, it's:
Bolivia v Paraguay
Venezuela v Chile
Uruguay v Peru
Ecuador v Colombia

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