Colombia, Uruguay expected to vie for final World Cup slot (again)
Now that the adrenaline rush of the transfer window has passed, attention turns to international soccer and the road to South Africa 2010. South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign is well underway -- this coming weekend marks the seventh of the 18 rounds played -- and there's plenty at stake in all five of the matches on the calendar.
Brazil coach Dunga's job is on the line as he takes his side, currently in fifth place in the standings, to Santiago to face Chile, one place higher and with soaring morale. Second-place Argentina, bolstered by Olympic gold, is at home to first-place Paraguay. At the other end of the table, the bottom four sides meet each other. Last-place Peru, in some disarray, takes on Venezuela, currently seventh, a place ahead of Ecuador, which is looking to confirm its recovery from a disastrous start with a win at home to Bolivia.
But come next October, when the competition reaches an end and the World Cup places are allocated, it could turn out this weekend's most significant fixture is the meeting in Bogotá between Colombia and Uruguay. In both previous qualification campaigns, there was a duel to the wire between these two countries for the last available place.
In 2002 and '06 qualifying, the same four teams topped the table and bagged the automatic slots: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay. Fifth place, which gave the team the chance of a two-legged playoff against a team from Oceania, came down to Colombia and Uruguay. Both times it went to the latter by the narrowest of margins.
In the '02 series, the rivals finished with exactly the same record: seven wins, six draws and five defeats. Uruguay came out on top on goal difference by a solitary goal: plus-six, while Colombia was plus-five. Had the Colombians scored one more goal, the place would have been theirs -- they had scored more than the Uruguayans. It so nearly came. Right at the end of their last match, at Paraguay, a Colombian counterattack gave Tino Asprilla a terrific chance to score. His shot went just wide and Uruguay went to the playoff while Colombia watched on TV.
Last time around, Colombia had a much superior goal difference, plus-eight against Uruguay's minus-five. The trouble that time was that Uruguay had one more point, with six wins, seven draws and five losses, while the Colombians had six of everything -- and were left sick of everything as well. Once more they had a wonderful opportunity to put their fate in their own hands. In the penultimate game, at home to Chile, Colombia was held to a surprising 1-1 draw. Near the final whistle, Juan Pablo Ángel had a clear run on goal. But his shot also went wide and Uruguay went to the playoff once more.
In the end, of course, that playoff brought heartbreak for the Uruguayans. They had beaten Australia 3-1 on aggregate to get to the '02 World Cup. Four years later, two hard-fought matches against the same opponents left the scores tied at 1-1. and Uruguay lost on penalties.
There will be no Australia awaiting whomever finishes fifth this time. There has been a reshuffle, and the team from South America will now play off against opposition from CONCACAF -- and it isn't unthinkable that once again the battle to get there will be between Colombia and Uruguay.
The Colombians are currently sitting in third in the table, and they are the only side in the field that haven't suffered a defeat. But they've won only two of their six games, and scoring goals is proving to be a real problem. They have just four; everyone else, with the exception of last-place Peru, has at least seven. Colombia has a bright young generation of strikers: Radamel Falcao García of River Plate, Hugo Rodallega of Necaxa, Dairo Moreno of Steaua Bucharest and Edixon Perea of Grêmio. But they're still waiting for promise to turn into reality.
Uruguay, in contrast, has few problems finding the back of the net. With 15 goals, it has scored more than anyone else. The Uruguayans normally play a bold formation with three up front: big Sebastián Abreu as the target man, with Diego Forlán and the very promising Luis Suárez buzzing around either side of him.
But despite all of its firepower, Uruguay is sixth in the table, outside the qualifying positions. It could easily be higher. Uruguay should really have inflicted Brazil's first-ever home defeat in World Cup qualification, but let its lead slip and was beaten 2-1. It also dropped two points from a 1-1 draw at home to Venezuela. Both times, keeper Fabián Carini was at fault.
As a teenager, Carini promised to become one of the world's top goalkeepers. His career has never quite lived up to those expectations, and after his error against Venezuela, he lost his place to Juan Castillo, a solid club keeper with Botafogo in Brazil, but unlikely to command much confidence at senior international level.
On Saturday in Bogotá, can Colombia's strikers make good on their promise? Can Uruguay's keeper shut the drawbridge against them? These could be important questions as South America battles to sort out its representatives in South Africa.