Just over six months have passed since Argentina won the 2022 World Cup, but the time to look back has gone. After the end of this June international break, the next time South America’s national teams are in action will be to compete for a place at the 2026 World Cup, as the qualifiers get underway in September.
Bearing in mind that this month has been the final opportunity to get together before things get competitive, the last few days have been surprisingly low key — perhaps reflecting problems in fixing up high-profile friendlies. But suddenly things are not low key for Brazil, whose future plans will be put under the microscope after a 4-2 defeat to Senegal in Lisbon.
Once again, Brazil were under the command of caretaker coach Ramon Menezes, whose day job is to take charge of the under-20s. In March his team lost to Morocco. Earlier this month his U20 World Cup campaign ended with elimination by Israel. And now, after Saturday’s 4-1 win over Guinea (where the result was better than the performance) his side suffered another embarrassing defeat. Indeed, this is the first time Brazil have conceded more than two goals since the 2014 World Cup — a 3-0 defeat to Netherlands in the third-place playoff, which came after the disastrous 7-1 thrashing to Germany in the semifinals.
The problem is that Menezes looks slated to be in charge for the first six rounds of the 2026 qualifiers. Brazil have made no secret of their desire to appoint Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti and, according to the local media, are willing to wait until his contract runs out in a year’s time. But what happens until then? Does Menezes stay in charge?
However it works out, Brazil were given a painful reality check in Lisbon. In the absence of the injured Neymar, their leading attacking talent is Vinicius Junior and it was his made-in-Flamengo link up with Lucas Paqueta that gave Brazil the lead against Senegal. But with two wingers, and no Casemiro (a last minute drop out) to anchor the midfield, Brazil were alarmingly open, especially down the left side. In the space behind Vinicius, full-back Ayrton Lucas had a torrid time and every misplaced Brazilian pass — and there were many — became an invitation for Senegal to drive through their ranks as the African champions came back to take a 3-1 lead by the 55th minute.
In Qatar under Tite it was hard for the opposition to create chances against Brazil; in Lisbon it was absurdly easy. The match highlighted the importance of a coach to provide balance and defensive organisation to a team which, despite the final 4-2 scoreline, has no lack of talent.
So will Brazil now double down on the belief that Ancelotti is their man and is worth waiting for? Or will they abandon that and rush in someone else? Interesting weeks lie ahead.
In the case of Argentina, the uncertainty swirls around Lionel Messi. Will the 35-year-old still be around in three years? His words seem to say no, but his actions hint otherwise. The wonderful goal he scored at the start of Thursday’s 2-0 win over Australia showed that he is still in a class of his own and he will always have players around him prepared to do the running.
The case of Angel Di Maria is not so clear-cut. But Argentina have blooded alternatives in Alejandro Garnacho and Brighton’s Facundo Buonanotte, who made his debut in Monday’s 2-0 win over Indonesia. Coach Lionel Scaloni is starting to look at alternatives to veteran centre-back Nicolas Otamendi and, for the time being, is conducting a gentle transition of the team that won the title in Qatar.
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“Gentle” is also a good word to describe the opponents hand-picked for Marcelo Bielsa’s first games in charge of Uruguay, with Nicaragua and Cuba coming down to Montevideo. The former Leeds United boss chose the two games to have a look at his fringe players — and plenty of them. Toluca’s Maxi Araujo was the only one to start both games, and he did so in two different positions.
Considerably slimmed down after a recent spell in a spa, Bielsa paced up and down during an interesting 4-1 win over Nicaragua and a disappointing 2-0 triumph over Cuba. But his side for September’s qualifiers will surely be very different.
Some of the other new coaches in South America are further down the line and one of them, Colombia‘s Nestor Lorenzo, has every reason to be pleased with his team’s progress. Since his debut last September his side have recorded six wins and two draws. But after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Iraq, the highlight so far came in Tuesday’s 2-0 triumph away to Germany.
Lorenzo is starting to put his stamp on proceedings, with a core of regular starters. Neither James Rodriguez nor Radamel Falcao were called up this time, but fellow veteran Juan Cuadrado came up trumps, crossing for Luis Diaz to head the first goal and strike home the second from the penalty spot. After surprisingly missing out on Qatar, Colombia can start off on the road to 2026 with confidence.
Juan Reynoso’s Peru lost in Germany in March and now come back from a trip to Asia with mixed feelings. A 1-0 win over South Korea was an excellent result, but it maybe boosted morale a little too much. Against Japan, Reynoso felt bold enough to pick both Gianluca Lapadula and Paolo Guerrero up front. This left his team too open and Japan took them apart on the counter to win 4-1.
Meanwhile, Felix Sanchez is making an interesting start in charge of Ecuador. In March he began to make a transition to a three centre-back system and his side looked both solid and dangerous on their way to wins over Bolivia and Costa Rica.
Bolivia then met Chile, who had warmed up with big wins against Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The game finished 0-0, and scoring goals when it matters would seem to be a problem for both of these sides.
In recent times this has also been the weak point of Paraguay, but now there is optimism that the emergence of Brighton’s Julio Enciso will add much needed firepower. They only played once during this international break, at home to Nicaragua on Sunday, and had to work harder than they would have liked for a 2-0 win.
Venezuela remain unbeaten four games into the reign of Fernando Batista. Single goal wins over Honduras and Guatemala allow them to dream of making their World Cup debut three years from now. But the beauty of the build up to September’s big kick off is that, for now, everybody can dream.
Brazil get World Cup reality check; Messi key for Argentina