Brazil have all but sealed their place at the 2018 World Cup after a 4-1 thrashing of Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday evening, with Paulinho the unlikely hattrick hero.
The five-time world champions fell behind early on, after goalkeeper Alisson mistimed a lunge for a loose ball and brought down Edinson Cavani for a penalty. The Paris Saint-Germain star dusted himself down and smashed home the spot-kick in style.
Suarez absence keenly felt by Uruguay
However, it was all Brazil from there on in. Former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Paulinho fired home a stunning long-range strike midway through the half, to ensure the top two in South American qualifying went into the interval level. With such venom behind the shot, clocked in at 94 km/h, goalkeeper Martin Silva had no chance.
After the break, Paulinho put the Seleção ahead for the first time in the evening after tapping in a rebounded effort in the penalty area. Shortly after, a moment of magic from Neymar sealed the victory, as the Brazil captain burst past a lethargic Uruguayan defence to collect a long ball and delicately lob Silva.
Deep into stoppage time, Paulinho added gloss to the win and ensured he went home with the match ball by chesting home a cross from close range.
Without the suspended Luis Suarez, Uruguay looked short of ideas beyond cutting in from the flanks, and Alisson was barely tested. Without their talisman, La Celeste went out without a whimper, and will be eagerly awaiting his return against Peru next time out.
Tite and Paulinho: match made in heaven
The victory maintained coach Tite’s perfect start to life in the dugout, since replacing Dunga. The tactician has also managed to get the most out of Paulinho, after coaching him to great success at Corinthians.
Now plying his trade at Chinese outfit Guangzhou Evergrande, Paulinho has become an integral figure to Brazil’s recent success after a couple of years in the international wilderness.
Tite will have been left concerned by the performance of his full-backs though. Despite being veterans with almost 150 caps between them, Dani Alves and Marcelo looked out of sorts throughout.
Indeed, the latter was lucky to escape a straight red card for a deliberate stamp, but the pair looked uncomfortable with Uruguay’s directness and width. It is something that needs to be addressed urgently, particularly with a Paraguay side keen on exploiting the flanks up next.
Stuttering Argentina snatch victory
Elsewhere, Argentina got their faltering campaign back on track with a hard-fought and narrow win over Chile. After his penalty shootout heartbreak against the same opponents in the Copa America final last summer, Lionel Messi exorcised his demons by dispatching a first-half penalty for the only goal of the game.
The 2014 World Cup finalists have looked out of sorts, and the win in Buenos Aires was only a second victory in six games. The win was far from convincing and was not entirely deserved, as Chile enjoyed better spells in the match.
Nevertheless, Argentina have moved back into the qualification spots, at the expense of their opponents, who drop down to sixth.
Paraguay back in the mix
The pressure has certainly been ramped up on Chile, who now have Paraguay breathing down their necks. Taking advantage of some poor goalkeeping, Paraguay secured a 2-1 home victory over Ecuador to move within a single victory of the qualification positions.
Having missed out on the 2014 edition by some considerable distance, the Paraguayans had looked in danger of further heartbreak, but will be hoping this results sparks some consistency to take them to Russia.
A changing of the guard as seen a number of veterans of World Cups gone by move on, including striker Roque Santa Cruz, and the national team is in something of a transitional phase. With a number of young players approaching their peak years, the future may be brighter than was initially feared for Paraguayan football a couple of years ago.
Ecuador themselves will have been disappointed to have left empty-handed, but a stellar campaign thus far sees them hold onto fifth. Although they have struggled on their travels in this campaign, a superb home record means they are still in with more than shout.
Colombia do it the hard way
Earlier in the evening, James Rodriguez spared Colombia’s blushes with a late goal to settle a home tie against Bolivia.
The Real Madrid midfielder summed up his country’s evening by doing things the hard way; having missed a penalty, the 25-year-old managed to poke home the rebound and secure the three points.
It puts Colombia in the final qualification spot ahead of a trip to Ecuador on Tuesday, but the Tricolor will need to up their game against their hosts next week.
Collapse sees Venezuela’s World Cup hopes die
If they weren’t already, Venezuela’s slim hopes of qualification appear to be all but gone. Having taken an early lead in Maturin, a combination of shoddy goalkeeping and sheer power saw Romulo Otero fire in a freekick from close to the halfway line and go into the break with a 2-0 goal lead.
Venezuela appeared to be on course for a rare win, but sadly showed why they prop up the qualification table. A second half collapse allowed Peru to salvage a draw, but it is a result that arguably spells the end for their hopes also.
Nonetheless, Peru were worthy of a point based on the quality of their goals alone. Some superb passing combined with powerful running allowed the visitors to stroke the ball around rapidly in the box, before Andre Carrillo neatly tucked away.
Shortly after, Flamengo striker Paolo Guerrero towered over everyone at a corner to power his header into the top corner with expert precision. For all their faults, Peru are always a danger on the attack, but defensive sloppiness as let them down once again.
There are five matches remaining, and the pressure is mounting on those below Brazil to book their place in next summer’s tournament. With only four automatic positions, it is not inconceivable that a heavyweight in the shape of Argentina, Chile or Colombia could be forced to settle for a play-off spot, particularly as Ecuador and Paraguay have shown no signs of giving up.
South America’s finest have the chance to right wrongs or build on their victories in the next set of fixtures, on Tuesday.
The standout ties of the round are Argentina’s attempts to negotiate the altitude in Bolivia, whilst fourth-placed Colombia visit neighbours Ecuador, who sit just one point and one place below them.
Round 14 in full:
Bolivia v Argentina
Ecuador v Colombia
Chile v Venezuela
Brazil v Paraguay
Peru v Uruguay