Venezuela profit without kicking a ball
A gap has opened up as South America's World Cup qualification campaign reaches the halfway stage. Victories on Friday for Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador mean that three teams have pulled away from the pack.
But the round had another winner, who did not even take the field on Friday. It was sixth-placed Venezuela's turn to take a rest, and their position improved while they sat and watched as Uruguay and Chile, the teams above them, both lost.
Three rounds ago Chile were first and Uruguay were second. Now they seem to be in free-fall. On Friday all they managed to accomplish was further damage to their goal difference - and things could get still worse for them in Tuesday's 10th round.
Venezuela's World Cup chances have been advanced despite them not playing this week. Photo: Getty
Chile have now conceded 16 goals in their eight games. Defence is not their strong point. Under previous coach Marcelo Bielsa they tried to mask the weakness by pressing in the opponent's half but current coach Claudio Borghi - now fighting for his job - drops his back three deeper, exposing all the more the team's vulnerability.
And there are specific problems for the next game at home to Argentina. Goalkeeper and captain Claudio Bravo is injured. His run of 27 consecutive World Cup qualifiers came to an end on Friday, when Miguel Pinto stepped in for the 3-1 defeat away to Ecuador - a game in which experienced defender Pablo Contreras and key midfielder Arturo Vidal picked up red cards that keep them out of Tuesday's match.
Chile, then, will field a makeshift defensive unit against opponents who are well able to take advantage. Argentina played some breathtaking football in Friday's 3-0 win over Uruguay. Lionel Messi is now showing club from for his country, linking up well with Fernando Gago behind him and exchanging passes at bewildering speed with Sergio Aguero in front of him.
Messi, Aguero and Angel Di Maria combined beautifully, and the team are developing an interesting variation - Messi drops deeper, pulling the opposition with him and creating space for the long ball over the top for Aguero.
Chile's defence could well be in for another tough 90 minutes - as should Uruguay's be. This time it is not Messi and company who will torment the reigning Copa America champions, but the extreme altitude of La Paz. With no time to acclimatise, Uruguay now travel to meet Bolivia in the Hernando Siles stadium some 3,600 metres above sea level.
This would be a tough task at any time but Uruguay will have to do it without their best three defenders - Diego Godin, Martin Caceres and captain Diego Lugano are all suspended. Bolivia, for whom nothing but a win is good enough, will go all out to take advantage.
The chances are, then, that both Chile and Uruguay will struggle to pick up points on Tuesday. It is Venezuela's big opportunity to overtake them and get into the qualification places.
This is the first campaign in which Venezuela have been serious contenders for a World Cup slot, which brings pressures of its own. Coach Cesar Farias will have to ensure his side are mentally well prepared for their match at home to Ecuador.
Farias is alert to the dangers. Venezuela lost their last home match (2-0 to Chile in June), and he used the occasion to warn his players that they were in danger of becoming too big for their boots. Indeed, his youthful appearance belies a steely nature. To an impressive extent he has managed to impose his own vision and personality on his team.
At the turn of the century an Argentine coach, Omar Pastoriza, identified a generation of players who would be useful for Venezuela. Results only improved, however, after he was replaced by a local coach, Richard Paez. Where previously Venezuela had taken the field mainly in the hope of avoiding heavy defeat, Paez now sent them out to win. His team were a happy-go-lucky affair, capable of turning on the flair but very loose defensively.
This is something that Farias was keen to correct. "Our first priority was to improve the defence," he said recently. A total of eight goals conceded in the first eight games shows he has been successful - only the top two teams, Argentina and Colombia, have conceded fewer. But Farias is aware that a focus restricted to defence will only take the team so far. "If we want to go to the World Cup," he said, "we must have an aggressive idea of play in our home games."
In Venezuela's last match, in Paraguay a month ago, Farias freshened up his attack, fielding the slippery and talented youngster Josef Martinez behind strong centre forward Salomon Rondon. The combination worked well, Rondon weighing in with both goals in an excellent 2-0 win.
This, though, was against opponents obliged to come forward, leaving space for the counter-attack. On Tuesday Ecuador will have no such obligation. Their 100% home record means they can afford to keep things tight on their travels, seek to frustrate their opponents and then slip in Luis Antonio Valencia or one of the other dangerous options they have down the flanks - such as the pace of Renato Ibarra or the elusive dribbling of the highly gifted Jefferson Montero.
Ecuador are more than just an altitude side, strong only in their mountain fortress of Quito. Last month they were unfortunate to come away from Uruguay with only a 1-1 draw. In August they took Chile apart on the way to a 3-0 win in a friendly held in the United States. If Venezuela over-commit, they could find themselves in serious trouble. It is a game that calls for cool heads and concentration.
Tuesday's match in Puerto La Cruz is probably the most important meeting ever between Venezuela and Ecuador - the first time that both are realistically chasing a World Cup slot. And if things go wrong once more for Uruguay and Chile, even a draw could be enough to carry Venezuela above them.
Comments on the piece below. Send 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 was curious about your opinion on about Paulo Henrique Ganso's move to Sao Paulo rather than one of the European giants - he was linked with the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Man United, and both AC and Inter Milan. Did he make the right choice in staying in his native Brazil? He was touted as the next Kaka, Brazil's biggest creative fulcrum and hope for 2014, but now those tags seem to have disappeared with the emergence of Oscar.
A) I'm not sure he had the option of moving to Europe at the moment, because it is far from clear that one of the continent's clubs would have paid big money for him. He is certainly very talented - capable of seeing and delivering the defence splitting pass. But I'm not sure that all that premature hype did him any favours. The playmaker position is one that demands maturity in the choice of options, and he has yet to show that he is anywhere near the finished article.
Then, of course, there is the question of his fitness. He has spent a lot of time injured over the past two years, and after his medical at Sao Paulo his new club described the condition of his knees as merely 'reasonable'. Indeed, it is far from certain he will play this year.
His relationship with Santos had broken down. At this stage a move down the road to Sao Paulo is probably his best option as he seeks to regain momentum.