Goals galore in South American World Cup qualifiers
It's the same teams, three months apart, coming up with a totally different spectacle.
Back in July the Copa America in Argentina was always enthralling, but its fascination was frequently the grim, attritional kind, with defences holding the upper hand.
Now in October, the first round of South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign produced four open games - at times absurdly so - and 15 goals.
Much of this can be explained by the differing demands of tournament and league football.
Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain scored a hat-trick against Chile to give new Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella a triumphant start in his first competitive match in charge. PHOTO: Getty
In the former - especially in a competition like the Copa America where eight of 12 teams progress to the knock-out stage - avoiding defeat is often the priority. Paraguay, for example, managed to make it all the way to the final without winning a single game.
It was no surprise when their coach Gerardo Martino decided to resign straight afterwards. He had the feeling that he had taken the team as far as it could go - and he was well aware that a run of five consecutive draws would not be much use in the World Cup qualifiers.
In a league format, two wins and three defeats score higher than five draws. Over the next two years South America's nations are playing each other home and away. The priority this time is to go in search of three points, especially at home.
South America is vast. The away sides often face long trips and the need to adapt to different conditions, such as altitude, heat or waterlogged pitches.
Both in World Cup qualification and in international club competitions, away wins are, generally speaking, twice as likely in Europe as in South America. The story over here of the first round of the 2014 qualifiers was one of comfortable home wins for Uruguay, Ecuador, Argentina and Peru.
Perhaps on this occasion, some of the away sides contributed to their own downfall. In their anxiety to fly home with three points in the bag they may have opened up too much and made things easy for their hosts.
This was partly the story in Quito, where Venezuela went down 2-0 to Ecuador. True, this was largely a reserve side but it was one that had been receiving specialist altitude training. Where they slipped up, though, was in tactical terms.
It should have been clear that Ecuador would attack down the flanks, but Venezuela, who flitted between a 4-2-2-2 and something more like a 4-3-2-1, were not cut out to deal with Luis Antonio Valencia down the right or Cristian Suarez on the left.
Venezuela were set up with two defensive midfielders in the middle of the park - too deep to stop Ecuador's Cristian Noboa knocking penetrative passes into the wide spaces, too central to get a grip on the wide men. With Valencia rampant, Ecuador had the game sown up before the half hour.
Chile coach Claudio Borghi's commitment to attack is to be welcomed, but perhaps his head has been turned by a desire to show that he can be even bolder than Marcelo Bielsa, his much touted predecessor. Even Borghi would surely have to admit that he went too far with the selection of his side for Buenos Aires.
He went with two centre forwards, Humberto Suazo and Mauricio Pinilla, two playmakers, Mati Fernandez and Jorge Valdivia, plus Mauricio Isla and Jean Beausejour looking to attack down the flanks. Defending was left to the typically error-prone back three and one holding midfielder.
It was the kind of line-up that might have been valid for the last twenty minutes if Chile were chasing the game, but going with it from the start meant that Argentina hardly had to work to create their openings and coasted to a 4-1 win.
This was a game where Argentina might well have been vulnerable. Following the disappointment of their quarter-final elimination in the Copa America they had a new coach (Alejandro Sabella, once of Leeds and Sheffield United), who has made changes with little time to bed them in. Furthermore, injuries during training forced Sabella to rethink his formation at the last minute.
Uncertainty would surely have grown in the Argentina ranks the longer the game stayed goalless - and pressure would also have increased with the restlessness of the crowd transmitting itself to the players. Then, at the moment that the hosts over-reached, Chile could bring their firepower to bear, off the bench if necessary.
Chile never sought to create this pressure, trusting in their capacity to out-attack Argentina. There is nothing wrong with seeking to take the initiative, but a low-scoring game like football seldom lets teams get away with committing so many players forward that they lose a balance between attack and defence.
One of the great advantages of such a long campaign is that teams have time to shrug off a bad day or absorb the lessons of disappointing results. At home in Tuesday's second round Chile will doubtless look to attack - but then so will Peru, so impressive last Friday as they brushed Paraguay aside to win 2-0.
This Pacific Ocean derby is seldom pacific, and Tuesday's version promises to be especially fiery. In the heat of local rivalry, keeping a cool head and retaining a balance between attack and defence will help determine the outcome.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week. From last week's postbag;
Q) I would be very interested in hearing your view of the chances of the Peru side in the qualifiers, as it seems to me that they have a very talented side that should be outsiders. Bolivia seem like the only team not to have a serious chance of making it to Brazil.
A) In the case of Bolivia, remember that they are backed by the extreme altitude of La Paz, the venue everyone dreads visiting. If they can win their home games then snatching the fifth place is not beyond them.
Peru's big test is now coming up. They indeed have a talented side, and a top quality, experienced coach in Sergio Markarian who seems to have got everyone facing in the same direction. They made a great start on Friday with that 2-0 win over Paraguay, but they are usually strong at home. Away, though, it's a different story. In the last campaign they lost all nine away games.
Markarian's big task - and I think he's up to it - is to ensure they are not such a soft touch on their travels.
Q) Kaka has recently found an upturn in his fortunes and his play with Real Madrid is slowly starting to resemble the incredible run of form he had at AC Milan. I'm a huge fan of Kaka, but I worry that, because he is at his playmaking best while playing on the break and Menezes is attempting to wean Brazil off their counter-attacking dependency, his time with the national team is well and truly over. Are there any murmurs about a return to the fold for Kaka?
A) The line seems to be that he has to find some consistent club form first. If he can do that, then a recall is a good possibility, especially as no one has really grabbed the number 10 shirt yet. He'll be 32 at the next World Cup, and he's the type of player who needs to be in top physical condition in order to thrive. With his injury problems it might not be easy for him to force his way back in, but I'm sure there will be no lack of effort on his part. Helping Brazil win in 2014 would be the crowning glory of his career.