South America World Cup qualifying remains a chaotic delight - Sports Illustrated

South America's World Cup Qualifying Remains As Chaotic As Ever

Brazil and Argentina's leading the table may not look curious on the surface, but the first set of matches in CONMEBOL's 2022 qualifying campaign has featured plenty of madness.
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Plenty of norms have been shattered in recent months, but if there's one constant everyone can count on, it's the chaos brought on by South America's World Cup qualifying.

The first two match days ensured that was the case. Half of the 12 matches involved some level of late drama, with goals in the 79th minute or later changing the balance of results. Only three were games whose results were hardly ever in the balance, and already there are some early themes developing.

As it stands, Brazil and Argentina top the table with six points apiece, followed by Colombia and Paraguay, who have four apiece. Ecuador and Uruguay are a point behind that, Chile and Peru each have one point and Venezuela and Bolivia are at the bottom after a pair of defeats.

Here are some key takeaways from the first two of 18 match days:

Argentina, Brazil and Colombia secure World Cup qualifying points

Little drama, little substance, but six points for Argentina

Given the difficulty Argentina had in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, points are welcome no matter how they come. Eking out a 1–0 home win over Ecuador on a Lionel Messi penalty kick and coming from behind to beat Bolivia won't go down in history as defining moments for La Albiceleste, yet for a team seemingly attracted to chaos, the drama-free six points are certainly welcome.

The challenges that come with playing in Bolivia are well-documented. What La Verde may lack in comparative talent, they make up for with the altitude of La Paz. To wit, Argentina had not won a World Cup qualifier in Bolivia since 2005 as part of the effort to reach Germany 2006. That run included a 6–1 embarrassment in 2009 and a 2–1 setback three years ago. Falling behind early on Tuesday could have had a snowball effect, but instead of wilting, Argentina displayed a fighting spirit. Messi remained engaged throughout to secure the points, while Lautaro Martinez and Joaquin Correa supplied the goals that got the job done.

More difficult matches are on the horizon (the March window features a home bout vs. Uruguay and a road test at Brazil, for instance), but Argentina didn't secure its first win until the fourth match day in 2018 qualifying. It's well ahead of that pace now, and while neither win was particularly overwhelming in terms of its quality, the results should give Lionel Scaloni's side some rare confidence on which it can build.

Another notch for Neymar

In Brazil's 4–2 win over Peru on Tuesday night, Neymar climbed the scoring charts for the Seleção with his hat trick. Now, only the great Pelé (77) has scored more goals in Brazil men's national team history than Neymar (64), who passed Ronaldo (62) with a dubiously given penalty and an insurance strike off a rebound deep into stoppage time.

He paid tribute to Ronaldo with his celebration (and in his postgame social media activity), grasping the moment that comes with passing a national legend.

Brazil's six points were secured in differing fashions, with a 5–0 romp vs. Bolivia followed by a genuine struggle vs. Peru in what was a rematch of the 2019 Copa América final. Brazil trailed by a goal on two occasions, appeared to be bailed out by the call that led to Neymar's go-ahead penalty and benefited from some other shoddy decisions from the on-field officials and VAR. Nevertheless, the continental favorite is off and running, and its 28-year-old superstar is one step closer to reaching one of the nation's most illustrious individual records.  

Early heartbreak for Chile

Chile's failure to reach the 2018 World Cup, especially on the heels of Copa América triumphs in 2015 and 2016, made for one of the bigger global disappointments, and its quest to reach Qatar has kicked off in similar, gut-wrenching fashion.

La Roja had four points in their grasp and somehow walked away with one after the first two matches. Stoppage-time concessions to Uruguay and Colombia ensured that a 1–1 draw and 2–1 win turned into a 2–1 loss and 2–2 draw, leaving Reinaldo Rueda's side in seventh position.

Nobody needs to spell out the fine margins that come with World Cup qualifying, but in Chile's case, there are some recent psychological scars that these results may exacerbate. Chile missed out on being in the intercontinental playoff for 2018 on goal differential and it missed out on automatically qualifying for Russia by two points. While there is clearly a ways to go—and the next two sets of fixtures are rather favorable—Chile could easily look back on the first set of matches with significant regret after letting points slip away so casually.