Analysis of South American Qualifying and World Cup Predictions for Each Team
The marathon South American qualifying process for World Cup Brazil 2014 is almost complete.
All that remains is the intercontinental playoff between the team that finished fifth, Uruguay, and the fifth-place team from the Asian confederation, Jordan, which takes place over two legs on November 13 and 20.
If Uruguay can come out on top of that challenge, they will join Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador, the teams who claimed the first four places in the South American table, in the World Cup finals draw.
Here I will analyse the performance of each nation throughout the campaign, and assess the chances of those who have made it to the big show next year (or in Uruguay's case, are still in the running to make it).
Brazil, of course, qualified automatically as hosts, and will most likely go into the tournament as favorites following their strong performance at the Confederations Cup last June.
This is how the final table looked:
Those who didn't make it
Yes, it's a cliche to say it, but there are no longer any easy games in South America. The 2011 Copa America showed that the teams which in the past were the continent's pushovers are now able to compete with the traditional powerhouses.
Paraguay lost narrowly to Spain in the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup before progressing to the final of the 2011 Copa America under the guidance of Gerardo Martino. Their performance in qualifying, then, can be regarded as extremely disappointing by their recent high standards.
Bolivia, while reasonably tough to beat at home, remain in a lull period of their footballing history, but Peru and Venezuela have improved markedly over recent years.
Which South American team will go furthest in Brazil?
Both were semi-finalists in 2011, and while there will be disappointment at not qualifying for Brazil, they showed enough to indicate there is now a solid base to build on ahead of the next cycle.
A home win over Colombia was the highlight for the Vinotinto, who were still pushing for qualification right up until the last round.
Peru, meanwhile, looked to be well placed after consecutive wins over Chile and Ecuador, but subsequently suffered four straight defeats to see their chances disappear.
With an extra place up for grabs for South America thanks to Brazil being awarded hosting duties, Uruguayans might have expected their side, flying high after making the World Cup semi-finals and winning the Copa America, to make qualifying a less stressful affair than usual by avoiding the inter-confederation playoff.
Alas, the two-time world champions stumbled badly midway through the campaign, and at one point looked like they might even miss out on fifth spot.
With a 4-2 win over Peru in June, 2012, Uruguay moved to second in the table and looked to be sitting pretty. A 4-0 hammering at the hands of Colombia on Matchday 7 was the first of a string of poor results, which included a 3-0 loss in Argentina, and defeats to Bolivia in La Paz and Chile in Santiago.
Oscar Tabarez's team managed to get back on track, however, and although it took until the final match against already-qualified Argentina, a 3-2 win in that fixture ensured they would face the familiar playoff route.
Luis Suarez was the top scorer in CONMEBOL qualifying, and it was his 11 goals and brilliant creative play which helped Uruguay recover from their slump and scrape into fifth spot. Along with his partner up front, Edinson Cavani, he is without doubt key to La Celeste's chances.
World Cup Prediction: Round of 16
They may have a wonderful history in the World Cup tournament, but some of the magic seems to have disappeared from the current Uruguayan side. Assuming they get past Jordan, the fact that they are a seeded team should help them navigate the group stage, but it is hard to see them progressing much further after that.
Finishing fourth and qualifying directly for Brazil is already a sensational result for Ecuadorian football.
La Tri enjoyed seven wins in total, including defeats of Colombia, Chile and Uruguay while playing a fast, counter-attacking brand of football.
The glaring omission from an otherwise impressive campaign, however, was an away win. This uninspiring form away from home does not auger well going into a tournament on foreign soil.
The death of striker Christian Benitez in Qatar obviously had a profound impact on the squad, and a desire to honor this popular teammate's memory will be one of the driving forces next year.
Antonio Valencia's zippy wing play is familiar to EPL fans, who see him perform regularly for Manchester United. He seems to thrive on the extra responsibilities given to him while wearing national team colors, and his game tends to go up another notch. When he is playing well, he has the ability to lift his entire team.
World Cup Prediction: Group Stage
Coach Reinaldo Rueda must get his team playing positive football if they are to cause a stir in Brazil. A carefree attitude and willingness to take the game to their opponents will be crucial requirements for Ecuador to produce their best form. Otherwise La Tri could be heading back to Quito at the end of the group stage.
Since Argentine Jorge Sampaoli took over coaching duties, Chile have finally started to show the sort of discipline and team unity that was lacking under previous manager Claudio Borghi.
As a result, the side's array of gifted players, in the area of midfield especially, are now producing effective and highly attractive football.
Chile snatched five wins and a draw from their last six games to roar into the top five and secure a well-deserved World Cup berth.
Arturo Vidal of Juventus is one of a number of star midfielders that make up Chile's impressive engine room. He is perhaps the man most capable of driving the side forward when some inspiration is needed, and his ability to crack in goals from long range should also come in very handy in Brazil.
World Cup Prediction: Quarter-Finals
It will take a strong and well-organized side to oust the slick-passing Chileans at this World Cup. They should offer up a feast of attractive football on their way to the last eight.
Los Cafeteros have shown themselves over the past two years to be a tightly knit, talented squad that is made up of a good balance of youthful and experienced players.
Coach Jose Pekerman, who was in charge of Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, is known for his capacity to implement a national team structure that encourages the development of young players, a system that appears to be bearing fruit now for Colombia.
A strong showing in qualifying saw the Colombians pushing Argentina for top spot until the penultimate matchday.
They play an exciting brand of attacking football and should be a force in Brazil.
Radamel Falcao has the talent and big-game mentality to be one of the stars of the 2014 World Cup. This sublime No. 9 could end up as tournament top scorer if Colombia progress deep into the knockout stages.
World Cup Prediction: Quarter-Finals
The term "dark horse" gets bandied about a fair bit in the lead in to a World Cup, but if anybody outside the usual candidates is in with an outside chance of winning the whole thing, Colombia is that side.
That being said, they have gone into tournaments with the weight of expectation before and come up short, most notably in the USA in 1994, so how they will perform this time around is anybody's guess.
The qualifying campaign of the Albicelestes could hardly have been more convincing.
An away loss to Venezuela on Matchday 2 back in October of 2011, as the Alejandro Sabella era was just beginning, was the only real blip in an otherwise commanding showing (if the last-day defeat to Uruguay while fielding a second-string side is disregarded).
The key to Argentina's success has been a much-improved midfield and an organized defense, which in turn have enabled the team's attacking stars to shine.
The team booked their place in Brazil with two games to spare by thumping Paraguay 5-2 in Asuncion.
Any guesses? Lionel Messi has been sensational for Argentina since Sabella took charge and appointed him captain. The notion that he was poor for his country before that was somewhat of a myth, but nowadays his international form is just as breathtaking as his club form, and that should cause major concerns for every other team in Brazil.
World Cup Prediction: Winners
The Albicelestes are a very good side with an excellent manager. The likes of Spain, Germany and Brazil will no doubt have a major say in the matter, but none of those sides have Messi in their ranks—and that, in the end, should give Argentina the decisive edge.
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