Argentinian relief, Venezuelan euphoria
Uruguay sat out Tuesday's fourth round of the South American World Cup qualification campaign, celebrating top spot (and a golden year) with a 1-0 victory in a friendly away to Italy - achieved without Diego Forlan or Luis Suarez.
While the Uruguayans were off on the other side of the Atlantic, two teams pulled level with them on points at the top of the CONMEBOL qualifying table - two teams from opposite ends of the continent, with vastly different footballing traditions and greatly contrasting attitudes towards their performances in the current campaign. Venezuela reached the seven point mark barely able to control their euphoria, while Argentina did so blowing a huge sigh of relief.
Against Colombia, Alejandro Sabella's side were 45 minutes away from pushing the panic button. Four days earlier, in the third round, they had produced a desperately disappointing display to draw 1-1 with Bolivia in Buenos Aires - a fixture usually seen as a home banker.
There was no sense of a team, new captain Lionel Messi got worse as the game wore on, and Sabella was clearly worried about the prospect of visiting Colombia in the fourth round. The opponents were, along with Uruguay, the only unbeaten team in the competition, and there were also the conditions to consider - the game would be played in the fierce afternoon sun of Barranquilla, a sweltering city on the Caribbean coast.
Sabella went with a cautious line up - and saw his plans unravel just before half time when Colombia took the lead, Dorlan Pabon's free kick deflected past his own keeper by Javier Mascherano. What could Argentina do? They had created nothing in the first half, and now ran the risk of wilting in the heat as they sought to chase the game, opening up and leaving themselves exposed to the Colombian counter attack.
But Colombia had worries of their own. The suspension of Luis Amaranto Perea deprived them of their quickest centre back. Mario Yepes and Arquivaldo Mosquera defended deep to protect their lack of pace. And specialist midfield marker Carlos Sanchez - who had taken care of Messi in fine style when the teams met in July at the Copa America - was injured. In his absence, Abel Aguilar and Gustavo Bolivar sought to protect the centre backs. Before the match Bolivar thought his task might be easy. Messi, he said, was an ordinary player.
He was made to eat his words - but only after the interval. Sergio Aguero came on at half-time, and the game changed. His speed gave the Colombian defence extra cause for concern, and his presence allowed Messi to drop deeper, picking up possession in the ample space in front of Colombia's defensive midfielders. Given space to pick up a head of steam, and given options around him for a quick exchange of passes, there is nothing ordinary about Lionel Messi.
And so, contrary to all the forecasts, it was Colombia who wilted as the game wore on. Chasing after the ball is always more psychologically tiring than running in possession. The hosts managed just one chance in the second half, while Messi's perky orchestrations started to find gaps in their defence. He scored the equaliser, and was also involved in the winner, a move set up and rounded off by Aguero.
Messi commented afterwards that he and his team-mates had finished the game in a state of exhaustion. But their efforts had been rewarded with a deserved victory - one for which they had to dig deep. To come away with the three points Argentina had been forced to confront their own demons, overcome their lack of confidence and come from behind against the odds. They showed strength of character.
But they did not show enough football to please all the purists. Cesar Luis Menotti is one of the most interesting voices in Argentine football. The coach who led them to their first World Cup win in 1978, Menotti's brand of café philosophy craves for something more aesthetically pleasing than Sabella's side produced on Tuesday. His reaction to Argentina's display - "I didn't like it at all".
It is an illustration of how tradition can weigh down like a burden. For some, Argentina will always be judged by the highest standards, and found wanting in the shadows of greats from the past. Venezuela, meanwhile, have no such worries. They are gleefully constructing their own tradition. Tuesday's 1-0 won at home to Bolivia was by no means a vintage display - the visitors may even have deserved a draw by the end - but the Venezuelans are in no mood to criticise. All they can think about is that their first ever World Cup appearance is becoming a real possibility.
A land more associated with baseball and beauty contests, the rise of Venezuela on the football pitch is truly remarkable, and would never have happened without the introduction of the marathon World Cup qualification format in 1996. Up to that point, their all-time record in qualifying was as follows: 2 wins, 3 draws, 31 defeats, 18 goals scored and 117 conceded. In the most recent of those, the USA '94 qualifiers, they beat Ecuador at home but lost their other 7 games, scoring 4 and conceding 34 in the campaign. They were South America's San Marino.
Since then they have been through a number of stages; the identification at the end of the 90s of a promising group of young players, the first run of victories a decade ago and the subsequent boost of confidence, investment in youth development and qualification for the 2009 World Youth Cup, new players produced and fed into the senior squad, and then an honourable fourth place (they were very unlucky not to reach the final) in the Copa America in July.
This last achievement gave them unprecedented global visibility - and made playing for the national team a much more attractive proposition for European-based players with a Venezuelan connection. Rapidly introduced to the squad, these new faces have already made a huge contribution.
Venezuela have so far scored three goals in the campaign. The first - last month's historic winner against Argentina - was headed in by Fernando Amorebieta, a Venezuelan-born Basque who grew up in Spain and plays at centre back for Athletic Bilbao. The second - last Friday's vital late equaliser against Colombia - was coolly slotted home by attacking midfielder Frank Feltscher, Swiss born with a Venezuelan mother. His younger brother Rolf, a defender with Parma in Italy, made his debut coming on as a substitute against Bolivia on Tuesday - where the only goal came from a corner headed in by centre back Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, and floated in by Julio Alvarez, Venezuelan born but brought up in Spain, who he represented at Under-17 level.
It is remarkable how well Venezuela and their youthful coach Cesar Farias have been able to incorporate these new players without losing sense of the project - without, it would appear, sparking jealousy and protests in the camp. Certainly results are not suffering.
Next time round the bar is raised, though. When South America's World Cup qualification campaign resumes in June, Venezuela are away to Uruguay - a fascinating test for the new kids on the block.