Who Might The All Whites Play In The Intercontinental Playoffs?

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Aotearoa’s done its bit. A Chris Wood hatty in Auckland inspired a comfortable 8-3 aggregate victory over the Solomon Islands and the All Whites will represent Oceania in the last round of World Cup qualifying. That last round happens to be another home and away contest – this time against the fifth best team from South America. Alrighty then, no pressure…

The South American arm of qualification is pretty simple, compared to most of the other ones. Not like Oceania where half of the Nations Cup counts towards the WCQs then the rest not and… yeah. You know the story. But in CONMEBOL it’s just straight league play, home and away against each of the other nine nations and bingo. Top four qualify straight through and fifth place takes on New Zealand in November.

Well, there are two more rounds to be played, both taking place over a few days in the October international window, and things aren’t exactly very clear. What we do know for sure is that Brazil have already qualified in top place and Bolivia and Venezuela have been eliminated.

But while Venezuela sits bottom of the standings they were still able to sneak a 1-1 draw away in Argentina the other day. As good of a fixture as Argie could ask for in their current predicament and they still couldn’t manage to win. Bolivia also had a result of massive repercussions in beating Chile 1-0. Those two teams, Argentina and Chile, were the finalists in the last two Copa Americas and now they’re sitting in the uncomfortable position where there’s a good chance one of them doesn’t make the next World Cup at all.

Here’s the table as things stand:

Peru are definitely punching to be sitting in fourth, though it could all still change drastically from here. Paraguay and Ecuador technically remain in contention despite both losing on matchday 16 (although Paraguay beat Chile 3-0 a few days earlier). Currently it’s Argentina who’d take on New Zealand while Chile would miss out completely. Going through how they got into this mess would take all day though – instead just take it for what it is and let’s look forward to the last two rounds of action that’ll decide it all.

MATCHDAY 17

  • Bolivia vs Brazil
  • Venezuela vs Uruguay
  • Chile vs Ecuador
  • Colombia vs Paraguay
  • Argentina vs Peru

MATCHDAY 18

  • Ecuador vs Argentina
  • Uruguay vs Bolivia
  • Paraguay vs Venezuela
  • Brazil vs Chile
  • Peru vs Colombia

Technically any of the teams from 2 to 8 could still end up in that intercontinental playoff but Uruguay only need three points to guarantee their advancing – considering Peru and Argentina are playing each other. They play Venezuela in their next game, a team they beat 3-0 at home last October, and then Bolivia the match afterwards, who they beat 2-0 away in the first game of the whole tournament… so that should take care of itself. Which more or less rules Luis Suarez out of a trip to Wellington, guts bro.

Similarly Colombia vs Paraguay has the potential to eliminate the Paraguayans with a home win. It’d also probably mean Colombia qualifies once the dust all settles but if they fail to win then their game against Peru could be crucial. To be honest, Paraguay and Ecuador are basically gone anyway. They can’t afford to drop any more points and fixtures aren’t all that kind. Paraguay should expect to beat Venezuela (though Lionel Messi will tell you it ain’t that easy in this continent) but that’ll only matter if they can also beat Colombia on their travels. Goal difference isn’t their friend. Four points won’t be enough and even six points is unlikely to be enough. Unlikely but not impossible, to be fair.

At least Ecuador’s points differential is in range of those teams in 4-6th but they still have to play Chile and Argentina. Of course, you could call that an advantage in some ways – win and they also take points off the teams they need to overtake. It also means one loss and it’s over but two wins and it might yet come down to a goal-difference shootout. Who can win by the most? However anything less than perfect and Antonio and Enner Valencia’s lot can have the summer off next year. Losing to Peru at home last game probably ended it for Ecuador, realistically.

Nah, most likely we’re talking about three teams who could be strolling out at Westpac Stadium in a couple months: Peru, Argentina and Chile. Peru is the odd nation out there. They haven’t made a World Cup since 1982 while Argentina hasn’t missed one since 1970. Chile have been in and out but they’re the defending continental champs having gone through a golden period of success under Jorge Sampaoli… but he fell out with the board and resigned in January 2016. The Argentine national now manages the Argentinian national team, funnily enough.

There aren’t too many star players in the Peru squad. Jefferson Farfan has been around a while, most famously at PSV and Schalke (he’s now at Lokomotiv Moscow). Similarly Paulo Guerrero briefly used to play for Bayern Munich and then also Hamburger SV much less briefly. Andre Carillo is at Watford and Renato Tapia at Feyenoord. Edison Flores plays for AaB in Denmark… a team that just signed Tamati Williams as their reserve keeper. But otherwise most of the dudes who don’t play their club stuff in Peru instead play their club stuff in either Brazil or Mexico.

Manager Ricardo Gareca did take them to the semis of the 2015 Copa America though, just months after taking over in the job. He then bossed the team at the following year’s centenary edition of the Copa where they famously beat Brazil 1-0 to eliminate those jokers before losing on penalties to Colombia in the quarters. Now they find themselves where they are thanks to a win over Uruguay in March and then six points in this latest window (2-1 vs BOL / 2-1 vs ECU). They’re certainly no fluke. This Peru team has been building towards a run like this for a few years now and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Considering whoever ends up playing New Zealand is probably gonna win by a couple spare goals anyway, most kiwis wanna see Chile or Argentina, what with the opportunity to witness some Alexis Sanchez or Lionel Messi in the flesh. Right now there’s a good chance that one of them won’t make the World Cup at all.

The most important game of the remaining ten is without doubt Argentina vs Peru, both teams sitting on 24 points as it stands. Chile can do some damage with a win over Ecuador but they then close things with a game away to Brazil and if the Selecao have cooled off since guaranteeing qualification then it hasn’t been by very much.

Safe to say that Juan Antonio Pizzi is under a fair bit of pressure right now. He took over the Chilean gig and led them to that Copa America Centenario triumph (including a 7-0 win over Mexico) but in 2017 it’s all been pretty terrible. Just four wins from 14 games in all competitions has left them on the brink – including three points from a possible twelve in 2017 WCQs. Losing to Argentina is one thing but going down 1-0 to Bolivia was a kick in the nuts and it really doesn’t help that Sanchez has been sulking about the place (there were rumours he asked to leave the Chile camp as he tried to orchestrate his deadline day move away from Arsenal… which never ended up happening) while Arturo Vidal is dropping hints that he’s close to retiring from international footy.

At least they know that either Argentina or Peru will definitely drop points so if Chile wins their last two games then they’ll still make it to Russia 2018 regardless.

Which leaves us with Argentina, the team currently in fifth. Their qualification journey has never really gotten going – they lost to Ecuador at home back in October 2015 in their first game, took four games to win at all, had to deal with Lionel Messi’s temporary retirement and then after beating Chile they went and immediately lost 2-0 to Bolivia. A couple draws in their last two has them still lingering in fifth.

Some people like to blame Lionel Messi for Argentina’s recurring disappointments ever since the Diego Maradona days, except until now those disappointments were about not winning major tournaments, rather than not even qualifying at all. But if this is Messi’s fault then it was only because he missed half their games. In the eight that he played they’ve won five. In the eight that he missed they’ve won one. Poor little bugger, Leo.

Argentina has scored 16 goals in 16 games – one per match. That’s hardly befitting of a team whose obvious strength is the attacking players they have to choose from. Messi, clearly, but also Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria and all those other jerries. The defence and midfield have their problems but the rest ought to be covering that up at this stage and it hasn’t been. Sampaoli is trying to implement a few new tactics on the fly. Injuries haven’t helped, nor have the usual selection issues when you have all those attackers to choose from. All they have to do is win their last two games but that won’t happen if they repeat the standards of their recent performances.

So who are the All Whites likely to play? Could be any of seven teams but right now the short odds are on Peru or Argentina, or maybe Chile depending on what happens when those other two play. Considering the stuff the All Whites said about the conditions in the Solomons, the altitude in Peru ain’t about to be much fun either. Plus Peru, despite their comparative modesty, might actually be the toughest of the three on form. Obviously the other two can always snap right back into shape in a second with the players that they have but that might be the risk that Anthony Hudson and the lads, right now, would most want to take.


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