After the drama, an expected end

Posted by Tim Vickery

A tame 1-1 draw, played behind closed doors between two sides with no chance of making it to Brazil -- the Peru-Bolivia game was a maudlin way to end South America's marathon World Cup qualifiers.

But events earlier in the night had been much more in keeping with the spirit of what was a splendid campaign.

The night began with Uruguay, guaranteed at least a place in the playoff, having a remote chance of sneaking into one of the continent's four automatic-qualification places. This needed two things to happen. First, Uruguay would have to win at home against Argentina. Second, there would have to be a big winner in the Santiago clash between Chile and Ecuador, big enough to allow Uruguay to overtake the losers on goal difference.

A draw in Santiago, meanwhile, would ensure qualification for both teams and leave Uruguay resigned to next month's playoff against Jordan.

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Cynical voices suggested that, given this scenario, Chile and Ecuador would do each other a mutual favour by playing out the dullest of draws. In reality, however, this never looked likely. The current Chile side would not know how to do such a thing if they tried. Their philosophy, under electric little Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli, is one of all-out attack -- and in front of their own fans, they also would want to seal their qualification in style.

Ecuador, though, had plenty to gain from a more cautious approach. With a poor away record and a suspect defensive unit, their obvious strategy was to defend deep and thus create space for the strength and skill of their wide duo, Luis Antonio Valencia down the right and Jefferson Montero on the left, to launch the counterattack.

For a while, the plan seemed to be working well. Ecuador were the more dangerous side. But there are risks in defending deep, especially if the back line is not equipped to deal with the high ball played into the box. Soon after the half-hour mark, Chile scored two quick goals.

In Montevideo, meanwhile, Uruguay and Argentina fought out a pulsating first half. The Argentines, although well under strength, had looked much the better side, but with the aid of a somewhat dubious penalty, the scores were level at 2-2.

After the break, though, Uruguay charged out with new purpose. Three minutes into the second half, Edinson Cavani put them into the lead. Suddenly Uruguay's task looked possible. They were level on points with Ecuador and trailing by three on goal difference. One goal here, two goals there, or vice versa, and it would be a different story.

In Santiago, Chile could not have come closer to a third, Arturo Vidal's header thudding off the inside of the post and rebounding along the line into the grateful arms of the goalkeeper. In Montevideo, Luis Suarez sent a little lob onto the roof of the net, Christian Stuani headed just over, and then Cristian Rodriguez hit a shot across the Argentine keeper and off the post. Pressure was building and nerves were jangling, especially on the Ecuador bench -- until Valencia surged into a breakout and set up Felipe Caicedo for the goal that effectively ended the drama.

Chile beat Ecuador 2-1, and Uruguay beat Argentina 3-2. Ecuador and Uruguay finished level on points, with the Ecuadorians four ahead on goal difference. They go through automatically; Uruguay have to plan for next month's playoff.

Justice was done. In both meetings between the two sides, Ecuador could consider themselves unlucky with refereeing decisions. In Montevideo last September, they were a goal ahead when they appeared to be denied a blatant penalty. Minutes later, Uruguay equalised. And Ecuador's 1-0 win on Friday really should have been by a bigger margin -- a late strike by Joao Rojas was ruled out for a nonexistent offside.

And so the action will end where it started. The first game of the marathon campaign took place in Montevideo's Centenario stadium back on Oct. 7, 2011. On a waterlogged pitch, Uruguay took just three minutes to score the opening goal against Bolivia on their way to a 4-2 win. They have had an up-and-down time since then, a fine first year followed by a disastrous 2012-13, when for a while it looked as though even the playoff position might be beyond them. But finding reserves of mental strength and tactical nous at the right time, they rallied to win away to direct rivals Venezuela and Peru, and for the fourth consecutive campaign they have finished in the playoff spot.

A month from now they will hope to seal their place in Brazil by overcoming Jordan in the Centenario stadium. No one needs to remind the Uruguayans that four years ago finishing fifth in South America was a prelude to finishing fourth in the World Cup. And no one needs to remind the Uruguayans of what happened the last time the World Cup was played in Brazil.


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