Since taking over as national team manager, Tite has removed all suspense from Brazil’s 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign, winning eight games out of eight leaving the Seleção just a point away from Russia with four games to go. With top spot all but sealed, the drama from South America’s marathon qualifying campaign is now contained in the fight for the three remaining direct qualification places and one playoff spot. The biggest winners in that particular battle after this international break are Colombia.
Coming into the March rounds of qualifying, Colombia were in sixth place, with no wins in three, including home draws with direct competitors Uruguay and Chile. The pressure was on when they welcomed Bolivia and as they missed chance after chance it seemed like Colombia were going to drop another two points at home, potentially dealing a fatal blow to their qualification hopes. Just when all looked lost, Juan Cuadrado was fouled in the box and James Rodriguez calmly slotted the winning penalty.
With La Tricolor back in the automatic spots, belief was renewed as José Pékerman’s men travelled to Ecuador, where only Brazil have left with three points. It was never going to be an easy task, but Colombia’s main men stepped up. James and Cuadrado got two first half goals, after which the visitors never looked like losing, comfortably seeing the game out and getting three crucial points. Embed from Getty Images
The back-to-back wins meant Colombia were the only team alongside Brazil to get six points from these two vital rounds. Crucially, all their direct rivals slipped up. In addition to losing the Andean battle, Ecuador lost at Paraguay, thus dropping to sixth. Uruguay, who were looking so good in second, followed up a 4-1 home defeat to Brazil with a disappointing 2-1 loss in Peru. Argentina looked disjointed in their 1-0 win over Chile, but managed an even worse performance in Bolivia as they lost 2-0 without the suspended Lionel Messi. Chile recovered from their loss against Argentina with a much-needed 3-1 win over Venezuela, regaining some semblance of momentum in their campaign.
All this means that in the space of two games, Colombia have jumped from sixth to second. The margins though, are incredibly tight, with José Pékerman’s team just two points ahead of his native Argentina in fifth place. However, the fixture list is favourable. In the next international break, Colombia visit bottom feeders Venezuela and host a Brazil side who in all likelihood, will already have qualified for Russia. Get six points from those two fixtures and Colombia will be within touching distance of qualification.