A resurgent Brazil squad under new management became the first team to qualify for the World Cup on Tuesday, the same day archrival Argentina heightened its risk of missing a spot at Russia 2018.
The five-time World Cup champions had a 3-0 victory over seventh-place Paraguay in Sao Paulo, moving to 33 points from 14 matches in South American qualifying. The Brazilians secured a direct spot for Russia 2018 after third-place Uruguay lost 2-1 to Peru in Lima.
Argentina, playing without suspended star Lionel Messi, lost 2-0 to Bolivia in the altitude of La Paz earlier and slipped from third to fifth with four matches remaining.
The top four in South America earn direct places at the World Cup. The fifth-ranked South American team goes into a playoff against a team from Oceania for a spot in Russia.
Argentina has 22 points from six wins and four draws, putting coach Edgardo Bauza under intense pressure to step aside.
While Argentina struggled, Colombia had a 2-0 win at Ecuador, posting its first win in Quito in 20 years and ended the day in second spot in qualifying with 24 points. Ecuador dropped out of the top five for the first time, slipping to sixth with 20 points.
Also on Tuesday Copa America champion Chile beat last-place Venezuela 3-1 in Santiago and climbed back to fourth spot with 23 points.
Argentina’s best chance of qualifying for the next World Cup seemingly relies on winning an appeal to have Messi’s suspension shortened. The Barcelona star made offensive remarks to a Brazilian linesman in the 1-0 victory against Chile last Thursday and, if the FIFA ruling prevails, will only return to the team in their last match for qualifiers in October against Ecuador.
From a TV set in the locker room, Messi saw Argentina little by little fade into an average side outrun by the Bolivians at the 3,600 meters of altitude. The last time the Argentines managed to win in La Paz was in 2005.
Of the five defenders Bauza wanted to field against the ninth-place Bolivians, only left-winger Marcos Rojo was available. Still, the Argentinians seemed to be handling the Bolivians, creating the best opportunities in the first 30 minutes. But then striker Juan Arce headed home a cross from Pablo Escobar in the 32nd minute to open the scoring for the hosts.
The Argentina started losing condition at altitude and Bolivia capitalized via striker Marcelo Moreno, who fired home from close range after a cross from Flores to make it 2-0 in the 52nd.
“We are alive and we want to qualify for the World Cup. This is a fight that we will keep fighting,” Bauza told a post-match news conference, before admitting there were big concerns within the squad. “Yes, the players are worried because no one likes to lose.”
The coach also said “it is strange” that Messi’s ban was decided so quickly. “It is regrettable that he could not play, but even more so that there was no time for me to work with someone else,” Bauza said. “I am a little surprised with the time they gave me to make the change.”
Argentina’s next games will be in August at Uruguay and in Buenos Aires against Venezuela. In October, the World Cup finalists will face Peru at home and Ecuador in Quito.
The atmosphere in Sao Paulo was party-like for the 44,000 fans in attendance for another Brazil masterclass. All three goals that took Brazil to the next World Cup showed either great skill or consistent teamwork and showed more evidence that it will be one of the favorites for the title.
It was also in Sao Paulo as Corinthians coach that Tite became a serious candidate for the Brazil job, after winning multiple national and international titles.
The opener was scored at 33 minutes when midfielder Philippe Coutinho ran to the right flank, counted on Paulinho’s dummy pass to give him space so he could poach it from the edge of the box.
In the second half, Brazil had the chance to make it 2-0 after a superb run by Neymar that ended in a controversial penalty. But the Brazilian missed his first clear opportunity to score.
He didn’t miss in the 63rd, leaving three adversaries behind as he made it 2-0.
In the 85th, Neymar and Coutinho exchanged passes, found Paulinho at the edge of the box and the midfielder used his heel to find Marcelo in front of the goalkeeper.
The crowd at Arena Corinthians ended the game chanting Tite’s name, which put tears in the eyes of the Brazil coach.
After he learned the result in Lima and that Brazil had secured the World Cup spot, Tite raised his hands to the sky at the end of his press conference and said: “Thank you, dear God.”
Midfielder James Rodriguez, the best player of the match in Quito, was only 5-years old the last time Colombia had an away win at Ecuador.
He started to break the Colombian drought at 20 minutes. Almost accidentally, Rodriguez touched the ball with his back after a low cross from Borja and it slowly went inside. At 32 minutes he started a play that finished in a similar goal scored by striker Juan Cuadrado - with his feet, though.
In the second half, Rodriguez helped Colombia control a match that could have ended with an even bigger goal difference in favor of the visitors.
Ecuador’s chances of a comeback were diminished when defender Luis Caicedo was sent off after a rough challenge on the hour. That means Ecuador won’t have one of their best defenders against Brazil in August.
Colombia now has 24 points and could end the round in second or third, depending on Uruguay’s result in Peru. In August coach Jose Pekerman’s team will play at Venezuela and then hosts leaders Brazil. In October, they will play against Paraguay at home and away at Peru