South America’s selection dilemmas ahead of the World Cup

June FIFA dates can often have a jaded feel about them, with all concerned watching the clock and waiting for well-deserved end of season holidays. It is a feeling that national team coaches need to guard against this year, however, as times are tight. The coaches have these next few days, some more in September, and then the 2022 FIFA World Cup is upon us. Selection dilemmas, variations, simple group dynamics — these are the areas that coaches will need to have clearer in their heads by the middle of June.

By then, of course, Peru will know whether or not they will be going to Qatar. They face a playoff — either against the United Arab Emirates or Australia on June 13 — with a warm up friendly against New Zealand in Spain eight days earlier. Coach Ricardo Gareca has chosen to keep faith with the group that rallied so impressively in the last 12 months. Coming out of the Copa America in July of last year, Peru were bottom of South America’s qualification table. They ended the campaign with seven wins and two draws in the last 13 games to grab the playoff spot by finishing a point ahead of a Colombia side which looked on paper to contain much more talent.

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It is hardly surprising, then, that Gareca has made few changes — and has resisted the temptation to recall the in-form Raul Ruidiaz of the Seattle Sounders. Gareca is well entitled to trust his own judgement. His achievements of him with Peru – a World Cup after a 40 year absence and a strong chance of a second – are off the scale. Put simply because Peruvian football is in an almighty mess. All the country’s clubs have been eliminated from the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League, for the ninth consecutive year — and this time they did not even manage a single victory. Peru have no high profile players in Europe, but again and again Gareca has made them add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Peru are seeking to make it to the World Cup and be competitive once they get there. For the likes of Brazil and Argentina, the bar is raised higher. South America has gone 20 years without winning a World Cup. The pressure is building to bring the dry run to an end, but both of the continent’s big two have a swagger of confidence in their stride.

Argentina have gone 31 games without defeat — all the most impressive because only six of them were friendlies. They take part in the glamor game of the next few days, Wednesday’s Wembley clash with Italy. It is the champions of Europe versus the champions of South America. Some of the shine has been removed since the occasion by Italy’s failure to qualify for Qatar — the Italians (like the Algerians) can inform Argentina of the limitations of unbeaten runs. And, as they strive to regain face, the occasion probably now means more to Italy than it does to Argentina, where coach Lionel Scaloni is mainly concerned with simply ticking over.

He has his team and his method of play, with a couple of variations. Little that happens over the next few days (they will also face Estonia in Spain on Sunday) is likely to make him change course. It may be interesting to see if he looks at replacements for Nicolas Otamendi at centre-back — the Dutch-based pair of Lisandro Martinez and the freshly included Marcos Senesi are the obvious candidates.

Brazil have more selection dilemmas — a consequence of the sheer number of talented players available more than any reflection on performance — but Saturday’s Champions League final might delay the process of sorting everything out. Five of the squad were in action in Paris last Saturday, and face a long trek to the Far East, where Brazil faced South Korea on Thursday plus Japan the following Monday — and are still trying to fix up a match a few days later.

Brazil finished the qualification campaign in wonderful form, but coach Tite was never able to count on all of his attacking weapons together. Someone was always missing. Can he fit in two wingers (Vinicius Junior and Raphinha) plus Matheus Cunha at centre-forward, with Neymar and Lucas Paqueta in attacking midfield? It is a stretch, unless Paqueta is trusted in a deeper role. The full range of possibilities might have to wait for the Japan game, by which time Vinicius should have recovered.

In midfield, will Bruno Guimaraes get in ahead of Fred? The Manchester United man has been doing very well for his country, but Bruno would seem to offer more in the final third. And then there is the dilemma at centre-back, where Tite acknowledges that it is tough to choose between the experience of Thiago Silva and the speed of Eder Militao. Tite will hope to emerge from these FIFA dates with things clearer in his mind.

Uruguay, meanwhile, have plenty of decisions to make. Diego Alonso has only had four games in charge, where the fixtures were relatively straightforward and the side had to win. The side he used in January and March will not necessarily be the one he uses in November.

Does he still need Diego Godin at centre-back? The emergence of Ronald Araujo at Barcelona gives Alonso the chance of pairing him with Jose Maria Gimenez. So far Araujo has been used at right-back, and the space in front of the veteran Godin has been protected. Godin is clearly past his best, but he is the captain and team leader. This is a big decision.

Alonso already seems to have come to the conclusion that he cannot continue to pair Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. One starts with the other on the bench — but even so, there can still be a lack of attacking pace. Should he go with a winger, such as Diego Rossi? There are games coming up to help him — against Mexico on Thursday and the United States on Sunday, with the chance of a farewell match in front of their own fans on June 11, although Jamaica have pulled out and Uruguay are still searching for an opponent.

Ecuador are also in action on US soil, against Nigeria on Thursday, Mexico on Sunday and Cape Verde the following Saturday. Coach Gustavo Alfaro does not have the widest selection of players to choose from, and should be happy with a splendid qualification campaign, but a couple of gray areas exist. He used four keepers on the road to Qatar, and none of them were entirely convincing. It is a position of trust, so a decision is needed. Center-forward is not a strong point, too. It is interesting, then, that he has recalled under-20 star Leonardo Campana, who was not ready when thrown in before but has now picked up some momentum with Inter Miami.

A few other South American sides are also in action — Venezuela, Paraguay and Colombia are taking tentative early steps on the road to 2026. And then there is Chile, who fly out to the Far East to contest the Kirin Cup. There is a little more urgency here. Chile still clinging to the hope that they might be going to Qatar. They have launched a protest claiming that Ecuador fielded an ineligible player, which, if successful, will catapult them from seventh in the qualification table to fourth, and an automatic slot. Coach Martin Lasarte was sacked after the qualifiers but former Marcelo Bielsa assistant Eduardo Berizzo has been rushed in and will start preparing a side in the event that FIFA, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, see things Chile’s way.


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