SAO PAULO (AP) — Colombia started the South American World Cup qualifiers as a favorite for one of the region’s four direct spots in Qatar, while underdog Ecuador was expected to fail under coach Gustavo Alfaro.
Tuesday’s round ended with the Colombians in need of miracle after losing 1-0 at Argentina, and the Ecuadorians secured fifth place at least by tying with Peru 1-1, putting Ecuador in an international playoff against an Asian team.
A win would have put Ecuador in third place in the region and going to Qatar, but that seems to be only delayed to the end of March, when the two final rounds will take place.
Brazil (39 points) and Argentina (35) have already qualified. Ecuador has 25 points, three ahead of Uruguay. Peru is now at 21 points in fifth place, with Chile one point behind. Colombia has 17.
Bolivia (15), Paraguay (13) and Venezuela (10) have no chance of qualifying.
ARGENTINA 1, COLOMBIA 0
Lautaro Martinez scored the only goal of the match in Cordoba in the 29th minute after he was left alone in the penalty box by two Colombia defenders. Goalkeeper Camilo Vargas made several important saves, including three shots by veteran Ángel di Maria.
Argentina did not count on superstar Lionel Messi, who is still recovering from COVID-19.
Colombia’s last rivals are less dangerous: Bolivia at home and Venezuela away. Coach Reinaldo Rueda’s team will have to win both, overtake Chile and one other between Uruguay and Peru in order to get to Qatar. Colombia has not scored in the latest seven matches of qualifying.
“This is not over, we want to go at it until the end,” Rueda said in a news conference. “Maybe we need more clarity in the midfield and also in our finishing. We miss that energy.”
Argentina managed to get the best opportunities despite missing several defenders plus Messi and midfielders Rodrigo de Paul and Leandro Paredes.
Goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said the result proves Argentina has “more than 11 players.”
“This is to the credit of a team, the absences were not noted. This team is getting stronger and stronger,” he said.
PERU 1, ECUADOR 1
It took Ecuador only two minutes to start dreaming of its return to the World Cup, when Michael Estrada calmly put it in the back of the net after a long pass from a defender.
Peru struggled to block the Ecuadorians, but pulled even in the 69th minute with a header by Edison Flores — and the backing of the crowd. The draw puts coach Ricardo Gareca’s team in competitive position for fifth place, with two points ahead of Chile and four ahead of Colombia.
Ecuador’s final challenges in qualifiers will be at Paraguay and then hosting Argentina. Peru will travel to Uruguay, and then take on Paraguay at home.
Also on Tuesday, leader Brazil thrashed Paraguay 4-0 at home with goals scored by Raphinha, Philippe Coutinho, Antony and Rodrygo. Coach Tite did not count on an injured Neymar playing, and also used the game to test out other players like Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni did.
Uruguay gave new coach Diego Alonso his second consecutive win on the job — a 4-1 hammering of Venezuela. Rodrigo Betancur, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez all scored for Uruguay. Venezuela’s only goal was from Josef Martinez.
Uruguay could secure its World Cup spot with a home win against Peru in the next round.
Also, Chile beat Bolivia 3-2 in the altitude of La Paz thanks to two goals by Alexis Sánchez and another by Marcelino Núñez. The result kept the Chileans in contention in sixth place with 19 points and nearly ended the chances of the hosts, who remain with 15 points. The Bolivian goals came from Marc Enoumba and Marcelo Martins.
“This was a reward to our efforts, but it doesn’t finish here,” Chile striker Sánchez said.
Chile’s final challenges will be at Brazil and home against Uruguay.