International soccer has been pronounced dead multiple times, as a conveyor belt of meaningless friendlies often played by disjointed teams has diluted the quality of play. When it comes to World Cup qualifiers, however, those statements ring hollow. With 445 days left until the kick-off of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a spot among the 32 finalists comes at a premium.
Across the Americas, continental heavyweights will seek to improve their fortunes in the qualifiers this week, with certain powerhouses needing results to get closer to the World Cup. But which games should you care about the most? We’ve got the breakdown of the four key games to watch in both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF.
Uruguay vs. Brazil, March 23
New coach Tite, the successor of the castigated Carlos Dunga, has galvanized the Seleção. Brazil tops the group by virtue of playing more expansive soccer. Last September, Tite promoted Gabriel Jesus to the senior squad and he quickly became the new boy wonder of the team. In short, Tite is King Midas.
But at the imposing Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, Brazil faces its toughest test yet – for two reasons. First, the Brazilians will be without Jesus, who enjoyed a wonderful start to his Manchester City career before a metatarsal injury that is sidelining him for months to come. Uruguay is without Luis Suarez, but that just means that Edison Cavani can step in and play in his favorite role as an out-and-out centre-forward. Brazil doesn’t have that luxury up front. Roberto Firmino from Liverpool will play alongside Neymar, but that partnership may not be so lethal.
Second, and perhaps more interestingly, how does Brazil react if they concede first? The true test of any side is going a goal behind, and Brazil hasn’t trailed under Tite. Remember what happened in Port Elizabeth when Brazil fell behind to Arjen Robben’s goal in the 2010 World Cup? Dunga nearly smashed the dugout and he transmitted his own emotional collapse to his players. Uruguay may well open the score at home, and Brazil’s response should be fascinating viewing.
Argentina vs. Chile, March 23
Is it squeaky bum time for Argentina? Perhaps not yet, but this game is part of the giant banana peel Argentina faces in the final stretch of the qualifying campaign, with games at altitude and away to Uruguay still to come on the fixture list.
Argentina are just barely qualifying for the World Cup right now (they sit in the spot that would go into an inter-continental playoff), but neighboring Chile is within a single point. Last June, the Chileans won the Copa Centenario on penalties against Argentina, just a year after beating the Albiceleste on home soil for the Copa America 2015 crown. The Centenario game was to be Lionel Messi’s coronation as the greatest Argentine player in history, an uber-Maradona, rightfully in the pantheon of the soccer gods, leaving a profound legacy to the Albiceleste and generations to come. Instead, scooping his ball high into the New Jersey air, Messi faced a painful déjà-vu: another final lost – again, in the most painful of ways.
Thursday’s match is, however, not a pent-up grudge game. It’s 90 minutes that will go a long way in deciding the future fortunes of both teams. New Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza has won two, drawn two and lost two since replacing Gerardo “Tata” Martino, so he’ll be looking for three points here. Argentina plays with discipline, but talisman Lionel Messi, almost at the end of his club season, may still be feeling the effects of Barcelona’s match with Valencia last Sunday and the subsequent transatlantic hike.
Chile, on the other hand, has struggled ever since Jorge Sampaoli’s departure for Sevilla, but a win last November against Uruguay has given the Chileans some breathing space. Make no doubt about it, though: whoever falters in Buenos Aires will be in the pressure seat going forward.
United States vs. Honduras, March 24
At home, in Columbus Crew’s stadium (typically a stronghold for the Americans), a three-man back line failed to contain Mexico, with Miguel Layun and Rafael Marquez scoring El Tri’s goals en route to a 2-1 victory. Then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann picked on his players, singling out Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and John Brooks in his post-match comments. That attitude backfired, with a meek USA succumbing to Costa Rica 4-0 in the following game. Exit Klinsmann, and enter Bruce Arena.
“What I really know is how to build a team,” Arena said when appointed. “I understand all the qualities and circumstances that develop into making a team. Again, I’m hopeful those qualities will allow me to get this team moving at full speed when qualifying starts in March.”
But Arena’s team-building exercise has been anything but straightforward. Tim Howard’s controversial remarks about the commitment levels of dual-national players and US Soccer’s policy requiring players at all levels to stand during the rendition of the national anthem have both caused a stir. The atmosphere around the US camp has not been good, but at least Arena can count on the return of American stalwarts Clint Dempsey and Geoff Cameroon when taking on Honduras in what is now a must-win game if the Americans are going to qualify for the World Cup.
Mexico vs. Costa Rica, March 24
This one is a battle of the big boys at the top of the Hexagonal. Costa Rica is the only team with a 100% record in the qualifiers, following wins against both the USA and Trinidad and Tobago. Win here, and Costa Rica takes a big step towards qualification.
If Mexican can win at home, however, it will go top of the group. In its first two qualifiers, El Tri defeated the USA in Columbis before disappointing against Panama. Los Canaleros applied a simple yet effective method to thwart the Mexicans: park the bus. It was successful enough to get a goalless draw and a valuable point at the Azteca Stadium. Spoiled Mexican fans chanted “Osorio out,” but there is a general acknowledgement that the gap between Mexico and the rest of CONCACAF has narrowed, coach be damned.
The best of the rest in CONCACAF have more skilled players at their disposal than ever before, and the level of tactical acumen has increased in turn. The Ticos of Costa Rico will feel comfortable aiming for a point in Mexico, something that would have been unthinkable two or three decades ago. The Costa Ricans will surely be especially ambitious given Mexico’s lack of firepower via the absences of Hirving Lozano, Giovani dos Santos, Marco Fabian, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, Javier Aquino, and Andres Guardado.