RIO DE JANEIRO — Uruguay and Colombia are trending the right way in their bids to qualify for next year’s World Cup.
But headed the wrong way is Argentina, the runner-up three years ago in Brazil.
Argentina’s new coach Jorge Sampaoli was supposed to bring an attacking style. Instead, a team led by Lionel Messi scored only one goal in two recent World Cup qualifiers — and that goal was an own-goal in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with lowly Venezuela in Buenos Aires.
“We have it in us, the players are top-rank,” Sampaoli said. “We have to be convinced of our own qualities and face what’s coming with lots of strength.”
Brazil has already advanced from the South American qualifying competition. The next seven teams are separated by only seven points going into next month’s last two matches. Overall, four teams from South America advance automatically. The fifth-place team faces a two-game playoff with New Zealand.
Here’s how the top teams stand: Brazil (37), Uruguay (27), Colombia (26), Peru (24), Argentina (24), Chile (23), Paraguay (21), Ecuador (20). Bolivia and Venezuela are both eliminated.
NO MESSI IN RUSSIA?
It could happen. Argentina could miss the World Cup. The Albiceleste are home next month against an improving Peru — coached by Argentine Ricardo Gareca — and then play Ecuador in the thin air of Quito, which is set at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet).
“We let a very good opportunity get away,” Sampaoli said after the draw with Venezuela “We’re in a tough place.”
Sampaoli is Argentina’s third coach in this qualifying cycle. He declined to call up Gonazlo Higuain, replacing him with Mauro Icardi. The Inter Milan striker had four clear chances in the first half and failed to score.
If it’s forced to a playoff, Argentina would be an overwhelming favorite against New Zealand.
Brazil coach Tite, who had won nine consecutive qualifiers after taking over Brazil, settled for a 1-1 draw at Colombia. He basically said that Colombia is the best team Brazil has faced in qualifying.
“It was a great game,” Tite said. “Taking into account the entire match, I enjoyed it more than Ecuador.”
Brazil had defeated Ecuador 2-0 five days earlier.
Colombia is at home to Paraguay next month, and then plays at Peru.
“Colombia played an excellent match,” Tite said. “They were a tough opponent, and they are in good shape to qualify.”
URUGUAY DOES ENOUGH
Uruguay is close to securing a place at next year’s tournament in Russia after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory at Paraguay.
Its two final matches are against the two weakest teams in the region. A victory in the first match next month at Venezuela should do it. After that, Uruguay is at home to Bolivia.
“We did what we had to do at the right time,” Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani said. “With these three points we are close to the World Cup.”
Zuniga reported from New York