Uruguay will want to improve on 2010's showing as South America's best
Looking at potential World Cup winners outside of hosts Brazil is hard. There are two-time World cup winners Argentina and Uruguay, but outside of them there are few with strong enough credentials to suggest that any of CONMEBOL’s other representatives can spring a surprise.
That is until you look a little closer at some of the squads of those currently leading the qualification standings. Colombia, although having never made it past the round of 16 that they reached in 1990, have one of the best international teams on paper right now. Ecuador and Venezuela also have some outstanding talent and promising young prospects just breaking onto the international scene.
Admittedly it is difficult to see either la Tri or la Vinotinto making it past the group stages despite their talent, but Colombia in particular are intriguing given their current pool of talent. Chile are ruled out having momentarily just replaced Claudio Borghi with Jorge Sampaoli although they do sit level on points with Uruguay in the current qualification standings.
Although it is still a bit too early to tell, here are the main non-Brazilian South American sides who could make waves should they make it to Brazil.
Argentina's hopes depend on Sabella's ability to find the best role for Messi
When taking Brazil out of the equation, there is naturally only one favourite. Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina squad arguably boast the most talent on the continent, more so than the hosts despite Neymar’s presence.
Third in the current FIFA rankings, la Albiceleste boast the prodigious talents of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria amongst others. Whilst the defence is the weakest area of the Argentine team, the difficulty for all Argentine sides since his emergence in 2005 is how to accommodate captain Messi. Barcelona’s prodigy has never been the same player for his country that is seen conquering Europe at club level.
For Sabella’s side to triumph in Brazil, this needs to happen. Since the introduction of Paris Saint-Germain’s Ezequiel Lavezzi to the starting lineup, Messi has started to show some of his best form for the Albiceleste. Ezequiel Garay’s presence at the back is also a calming influence in a questionable backline. However, much will depend on Sabella’s ability to harness the talent that Argentina possesses to create a winning team.
Aside from the obvious pedigree, they are in-form in qualifying. Higuain and Messi have seven goals apiece from nine qualifying matches, and Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria have chipped in with a further combined five.
Likelihood of success: 4/5
Uruguay's jubilant scenes in 2010 seem a long time ago right now
Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay are the second-most obvious candidates, particularly when considering their performance in South Africa in 2010 when they finished fourth. Since then la Celeste won the 2011 Copa America but following that victory, the team have imploded somewhat.
Currently 16th in the FIFA rankings, Uruguay are struggling in this year’s qualifiers despite the considerable talent that Tabarez has at his disposal. Although it would appear that there is an over-reliance on Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, who has seven goals in eight appearances in qualifying, the biggest questions marks are over captain Diego Lugano and Diego Forlan.
The two former stalwarts look past their best and Lugano’s demise since joining Paris Saint-Germain in the wake of the Copa America triumph has been particularly concerning. The inaugural winners’ defensive shape has been destroyed because of the now-Malaga man’s lack of practice and subsequent benching. The 18 goals conceded in nine games, including four in one match against Colombia, illustrate that the problems are at the back and not going forward for la Celeste.
Other star talent Edinson Cavani has also been relatively quiet so far; only two goals in nine appearances will be a worry for Tabarez. However unless he gets a handle on an extremely leaky defence, Uruguay won’t even be there to mount an unlikely challenge.
Falcao is leading the new generation of Colombian talent
Colombia are the most intriguing outsiders from South America right now. Jose Pekerman’s side, reminiscent of the golden era of the mid-1990s, and fifth-ranked in world football have won five of their eight qualifiers. Those include a thumping 4-0 win over Uruguay, and key away wins in difficult places like Chile and Bolivia.
They still have key qualifiers against Ecuador and Uruguay to come, not to mention a trip to Argentina. But Atletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao is a key reason behind a lot of the current optimism that surrounds los cafeteros’ current team.
There is quality in depth to this current side for the first time in a long time. Porto’s James Rodriguez, Cruz Azul’s Teofilo Gutierrez, Real Betis’ Dorlan Pabon and Inter Milan’s Fredy Guarin have all contributed well so far in qualifying. Rodriguez in particular provides the ammunition for Falcao who has five from six games. Nice’s David Ospina in goal and AC Milan defender Cristian Zapata are well-regarded, and Juan Cuadrado’s progress with Udinese and now Fiorentina has seen him flourish.
There is the right amount of experience too with captain Mario Yepes, Luis Amaranto Perea and Faryd Mondragon the elder statesmen of the team. The defence, that includes the trio, has only conceded six goals so far in eight games. That is a better record than any other South American side currently.
That is all without even mentioning the goal threats in Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca that Pekerman has behind Falcao. Both are serial goalscorers for their club sides and Martinez and Rodriguez play together at Porto, forming a deadly partnership. Further back, Betis striker Dorlan Pabon also has two goals from five games.
Reinaldo Rueda is the man at the helm for Ecuador
Reinaldo Rueda’s side are 12th in the FIFA rankings, so they must have been doing something right even before qualifying started. Currently second in the qualification table after some hard-fought results, particularly the victories over Colombia and Venezuela.
La Tri are less two-man reliant than Peru for example, who need Jefferson Farfan and Jose Paolo Guerrero to be playing well to win. Rueda’s star men are not flashy, but their familiarity puts them at an advantage, Felipe Caicedo and Cristian Benitez have been playing together since 2005.
The likelihood of Ecuador mounting a challenge on the World Cup stage though seems unlikely. There is undoubted talent there in Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and Dynamo Moscow’s Christian Noboa, but otherwise the team relies heavily upon domestic talent who are inexperience at the highest level.
Juan Arango is still Venezuela's star man at 32
Cesar Farias’ side are 55th in the current FIFA world rankings and have done well to so far be inside the top four of South America’s qualification zone.
The form of Borussia Monchengladbach’s Juan Arango, the presence of Rubin Kazan’s Jose Rondon and a disciplined defence that has only shipped nine goals so far makes them a formidable opponent in qualifying. However, it is unlikely that this form will last.
There are exciting younger players such as Standard Liege’s Luis Manuel Seijas, Anderlecht’s Ronald Vargas, Athletic Bilbao’s strong centre-back Fernando Amorebieta, but the weight of responsibility will still likely fall on Arango’s shoulders. The captain at 32 is still by far la Vinotinto’s most influential player.