By David Mosse
FOX Sports Soccer Researcher
The final two matchdays of South American qualifying are upon us, with Chile in desperation mode as they seek to avoid missing out on a second straight World Cup.
La Roja find themselves three points behind Uruguay for the final qualification spot and two points behind Peru, which, as things stand, would head to the intercontinental playoff. Any realistic hope for Martin Lasarte’s men likely involves avoiding defeat against Brazil on Thursday, and – in what might be the understatement of the century – history is not on their side.
Thursday’s clash takes place at the Maracanã and is the first meeting between the two countries at the hallowed ground since an infamous World Cup qualifier in September 1989. With Brazil leading 1-0 that day, thanks to a goal by Careca, Chile goalkeeper Roberto Rojas pretended to be hit by a flare thrown by Brazilian fans and, covered in blood, exited the field along with the rest of his teammates.
Images later revealed the flare had landed nowhere near him, and Rojas eventually admitted to cutting himself with a razor he had hidden under his glove. Chile forfeited the match, costing them a place at Italia ’90, and they were banned from the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Chile have appeared in three World Cups since then: 1998, 2010 and 2014. Each time, they were eliminated by Brazil in the round of 16. And it was Brazil that kept them out altogether in the previous cycle, handing La Roja a 3-0 defeat in the final round of qualifying.
That result preserved Brazil’s proud record of having never lost a home qualifier, a streak that remains intact entering Thursday’s match.
But Chile do have one bit of history in their favor. They are the most recent team to beat Brazil in World Cup qualifying, with a 2-0 win in 2015 in Santiago, courtesy of goals by Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez. Those two might well start upfront Thursday, with Arturo Vidal patrolling the midfield as La Roja remain as reliant as ever on their old guard.
Brazil have already secured a berth in Qatar, but they intend to start a strong lineup that will reportedly include Neymar as a false 9, flanked by emerging youngsters Antony and Vinicius Junior.
The stage is set for a dramatic night in Rio de Janeiro. Victory for Chile would represent an enormous boost ahead of their final qualifier, a home date with Uruguay. Defeat could extinguish their hopes.
If it proves to be the latter, the Maracanã, it must be said, would be a fitting venue to bring the curtain down on the golden generation.
Other news and notes
– Ecuador will finish no worse than fifth, so they are guaranteed at least a spot in the intercontinental playoff, and given their goal-differential advantage over the trailing pack, it would take some truly outlandish results to stop them from qualifying directly. The only question is whether they can seal the deal Thursday. All that’s needed is a point away to Paraguay.
Presuming The Tricolor secure a berth, it would be just reward for the excellent work of manager Gustavo Alfaro. Their final match next week is against Alfaro’s native Argentina, and Ecuador seem so certain of qualification that they scheduled that game at sea level in Guayaquil, rather than in Quito, where they’ve benefited from the altitude throughout this campaign.
– Uruguay can cross the finish line Thursday, provided they beat Peru at home and Chile fail to knock off Brazil at the Maracanã. The Celeste ended 2021 in miserable form and outside the qualification places, but the mood in the camp is much better now, thanks to a strong start to life under new manager Diego Alonso, who orchestrated victories in his first two games.
Luis Suarez scored in both those matches, and he’s expected to lead the line vs. Peru, alongside either Edinson Cavani or youngster Darwin Nunez. Orlando City’s Facundo Torres is also in the squad, which means coming up against club teammate Pedro Gallese. A loss for Ricardo Gareca’s side wouldn’t be all that devastating, considering they close their campaign at home to Paraguay.
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– Colombia are very much on the outside looking in after a disastrous previous window saw them tumble from fourth to seventh in the table. Los Cafeteros have gone an astonishing 646 minutes without a goal, and that offensive futility looks likely to cost them a place in Qatar. About the only good news is the fixture list, as Reinaldo Rueda’s men close out their campaign against the two weakest teams in the region.
First up is a home date with Bolivia, and if Colombia don’t score in that match, they might never find the back of the net again. Then Los Cafeteros face a Venezuela side languishing at the bottom of the standings after dropping four of their past five games. A pair for victories would preserve some hope that Luis Diaz & Co. can snatch a berth in the intercontinental playoff.
– Lionel Messi is back in the fold for Argentina after being left out of the squad the previous window, and it’s a safe bet that he won’t be booed Friday, as he was in PSG’s most recent home match against Bordeaux. The Albiceleste host Venezuela at the mythical Bombonera Stadium, and having already punched their ticket to Qatar, the task now is to build momentum for the World Cup.
Argentina are unbeaten in 29 games, as they continue to benefit from the harmonious atmosphere cultivated by manager Lionel Scaloni. For most of his career by him, Messi seemed happier playing for club than country, but that began to change in his final two seasons at Barcelona, and now, given all the dysfunction at PSG, Argentina seem to provide the ultimate respite.
David Mosse is a soccer researcher and writer for FOX Sports. He has covered multiple FIFA World Cups, and he also is the co-host of Alexi Lalas’ State of the Union Podcast.
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