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Friendlies Prove that South America’s Race to the 2026 World Cup will Be Tight

Argentina‘s long, hot summer of World Cup victory celebrations came to an end with another exuberant party on Tuesday night.

Last Friday, amid shows by bands and DJs, Lionel Messi and company beat Panama 2-0 in Buenos Aires. On Tuesday the festivities were taken to Santiago del Estero, in the north of the country, with Curacao the sacrificial victims. Coach Lionel Scaloni gave run outs to some of the World Cup squad members who did not get a chance against Panama — such as reserve right-back Gonzalo Montiel, whose penalty clinched the trophy in the shootout against France, and who now popped up late in the game with the goal that completed the 7-0 drubbing. There was also consolation for two players forced to pull out of Qatar through injury — winger Nico Gonzalez, who helped himself to a goal, and midfielder Giovane Lo Celso, whose uncanny relationship with Messi was the highlight of the night. Messi scored a first half hat trick, and Lo Celso was involved in all of them.

For how long Messi and Angel Di Maria will be involved is an unknown. What seems more certain is that the next set of South American World Cup qualifiers, less than six months away, will be fiercely competitive.

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That might seem a nonsense, given that six of the continent’s 10 nations will qualify automatically, and the team finishing seventh will go into a playoff. Only three will miss out. But no one wants to be part of that trio, and results over the last few days in the more serious friendlies give an indication of how competitive the contest will be.

One nation, of course, managed to beat world champions Argentina in Qatar. That was Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis were looking to celebrate that achievement in front of their own fans. But they lost 2-1 to both Venezuela and Bolivia — very impressive results for the visiting sides.

The South American pair also went to Uzbekistan, who beat Bolivia 1-0 before saving themselves from defeat against Venezuela with a late equaliser after the visitors had suffered a red card. This, then, was a heartwarming few days for two teams who failed to make the cut on the road to Qatar.

Venezuela’s last qualification campaign was a prolonged nightmare. The worst part was that big centre-forward Salomon Rondon, so crucial to the cause, was playing his club football in either China or England and unable to get home because of COVID-19 restrictions. He showed his value leading the line, especially against the Saudis, when he scored one goal and set up the other. New coach Fernando Batista can plan for the future in some confidenc

And another new Argentine coach, Bolivia’s Gustavo Costas, will be delighted with his team’s win against the Saudis. Away wins are a rare event for Bolivia and away goals even rarer. This victory, then, is good news indeed.

And there was more good news for South America from another pair of teams who went to Asia. Uruguay and Colombia came back from games against Japan and South Korea with a draw and a win apiece. Uruguay, under stand-in coach Marcelo Broli, showed that there is life without the likes of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani — and a whole host of other injured players — with a 1-1 draw against Japan followed by a 2-1 win over South Korea. A feature of the side was the freedom given to Real Madrid‘s Federico Valverde. With two holding midfielders behind him, Valverde was free to roam, and this could be Uruguay’s template for the future.

Colombia‘s recently appointed coach Nestor Lorenzo — another Argentine — had a good few days in the Far East. Two goals down at half-time to South Korea, his positional adjustments helped the team bounce back to draw 2-2. And then Colombia went an early goal down to Japan but went on to win, with a debut international strike from Jhon Duran and a magnificent overhead kick from Rafael Santos Borre. Missing out on Qatar was a trauma, which Lorenzo trusts can be overcome by Colombia’s new generation.

In their first games under new Spanish coach Felix Sanchez, Ecuador were also up against opposition from the Asian federation, with two games against Australia. Last Friday in Sydney they went down 3-1, and were unfortunate with offside decisions going against them. On Tuesday in Melbourne, Sanchez had a look at another system, switching to three centre-backs, and Ecuador thoroughly deserved their 2-1 triumph.

All of this means that after a combined total of 10 games, all of them played away from home, the South Americans came back from Asia with the overall score 5-2 in their favour.

There were no wins and no goals for Peru, though, after their tour of Europe. Experimenting with a three centre-back system they went down to a timid 2-0 defeat against Germany. In Spain for the meeting with Morocco, coach Juan Reynoso returned to the 4-2-3-1 much loved by predecessor Ricardo Gareca, and secured a 0-0 draw which is both encouraging — the opponents reached the World Cup semifinals and just beat Brazil — and worrying: where are the goals going to come from?

Chile had failed to score in six of their previous seven games, and Paraguay had gone three matches without a goal. Their meeting on Monday night threatened to be a tight affair. But in the event Chile came from behind to win 3-2, the winner a bizarre stoppage-time own-goal when Paraguay keeper Antony Silva contrived to deflect a corner into his own net. Rather now, of course, than in the qualifiers. Even with so many slots in 2026 someone is going to miss out, and the margins could be very narrow.

Source : ESPN