World Cup Qualifying 2018: Winners and Losers from Thursday's CONMEBOL Games
The marathon has only just begun.
CONMEBOL kicked off qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup with a full slate of five matches on Thursday across South America. Over the next two years, the 10 teams involved will fight for four automatic berths for the tournament in Russia, with a fifth earning a spot in an intercontinental playoff.
Here, B/R selects winners and losers from Thursday's first round of qualifiers.
All the Scores
Below is an overview of Thursday's CONMEBOL scores. Home teams are listed first.
Bolivia 0-2 Uruguay
Colombia 2-0 Peru
Venezuela 0-1 Paraguay
Chile 2-0 Brazil
Argentina 0-2 Ecuador
Winners: Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal
Neither Alexis Sanchez nor Arturo Vidal were certain to play for Chile on Thursday. Both carried minor injuries into international week, and coach Jorge Sampaoli took a calculated risk when he included them on his teamsheet for Brazil's visit to Santiago.
Any doubts over the pair were dispelled definitively in the game's final minute. With Chile holding a 1-0 lead, Sanchez and Vidal combined to seal the victory for La Roja.
Alexis accepted a pass in the middle, dribbled toward the box and laid off for Vidal on the right. Vidal sent his return pass back into the middle, and Sanchez finished on the rebound from close range after seeing his initial effort blocked.
Brazil's static defenders were guilty of poor marking, but Sanchez and Vidal deserve immense credit for mounting such an important attack in the final minute of the 90. To watch the two fly at Brazil, one might have thought it was the first minute.
As the long road to qualification continues, Sanchez and Vidal undoubtedly will continue to play major roles for Chile. Following their Copa America triumph over the summer, La Roja will be full of confidence.
Beating Brazil will only have Sampaoli aiming for even greater heights.
Loser: Brazil's Experience in World Cup Qualifiers
Time for a quick quiz. When was the last time Brazil played a World Cup qualifying match?
The answer is Oct. 14, 2009, when Brazil played out a scoreless draw with Venezuela in Campo Grande. The Selecao did not have to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, which they hosted.
To put that into perspective, consider this: Neymar, Brazil's biggest star for at least a few years now, has never played a World Cup qualifying match. He'll do so eventually, after serving a suspension following his red card at the Copa America this past summer, but that stat should provide some idea of how long it's been since Brazil went through the rigors of a qualification campaign.
The rust showed Thursday night against Chile. In fairness, Brazil did have a good spell during the first half, putting their hosts under pressure for a period of 10-15 minutes. But Chile were clearly the better side in the end, and Brazil boss Dunga will be searching for answers following Thursday's loss.
He has time, of course. Seventeen more matches are on the schedule, which means it's way too early for Brazil to panic. Neymar's return will help, but Dunga should not use the superstar's absence as an excuse.
Loser: Gerardo Martino
Gerardo Martino and Argentina played without their own superstar on Thursday, with Lionel Messi sidelined by a knee injury. To make matters worse, starting center-forward Sergio Aguero left the Albiceleste's match against Ecuador with a hamstring problem in the first half.
Already deprived of Messi's genius, the loss of Aguero was all the more damaging for Argentina. Apart from a bright start, the hosts looked bereft of ideas in a 2-0 loss at the Monumental. Carlos Tevez entered the match in Aguero's place, but he was unable to find the back of the net and was ineffective for large stretches.
Argentina's problems weren't limited to the attack. Ecuador terrorized their hosts with repeated attacks down the flanks via the lively Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero. In particular, full-back Facundo Roncaglia had a torrid time trying to slow down Ecuador's speedy sorties down his flank.
The visitors finally broke through with two goals in the final 10 minutes, and though it took a while to score, Ecuador fully deserved their victory. Thus Martino and Argentina have some soul-searching to do. Without Messi—and now Aguero—the two-time world champions simply weren't good enough in the attack.
The good news is that 17 matches remain. The bad news is that Messi might not be ready until Matchday 5, depending on how long his rehab takes. But even when he returns, the Albiceleste will have to solve problems at both ends of the pitch.
Winners: Uruguay's Goalscoring Defenders
History and circumstances seemed to be conspiring against Uruguay. Before Thursday, La Celeste had never beaten Bolivia in La Paz. And without suspended strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, that trend seemed set to continue.
Instead, Uruguay recorded a 2-0 win over their high-altitude hosts as a pair of defenders scored crucial goals. Martin Caceres fired in the first, finishing from a tight angle on the right in the 10th minute. Diego Godin—a scorer of critical goals for Atletico Madrid—popped up with Uruguay's second, a back-post header following a 69th-minute free-kick.
And so, Oscar Tabarez's side claimed a first-ever qualifying victory over Bolivia in La Paz and started the long road to qualification with a valuable victory. Who needs top strikers anyway?
Loser: Oswaldo Vizcarrondo
Singling out Oswaldo Vizcarrondo for criticism almost feels unfair. Venezuela created enough chances to beat Paraguay on home soil, but poor finishing meant the game remained scoreless until the closing moments.
Then, in the 85th minute, Vizcarrondo made a costly mistake. As an innocuous ball bounced toward him in his own half, the defender decided to send a back-pass to his goalkeeper, Alain Baroja. But Vizcarrondo did so with his chest, failing to put enough force on his pass.
That allowed Derlis Gonzalez to sneak in, steal the ball, round Baroja and score the game's only goal with Paraguay's only shot on target.
The margins can be tight, and so unforgiving, in international football. Full concentration is needed for 90-plus minutes.