By KEVIN KOCZWARA
Argentina became the first team from CONMEBOL to qualify for Brazil next summer thanks to two penalties from Lionel Messi and goals from Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and Maxi Rodriguez in the Albicelestes 5-2 win over Paraguay on Tuesday.
Jose Nunez and Roque Santa Cruz scored for Paraguay, but the goals weren’t enough to overcome Argentina, which has booked their ticket for next summer’s World Cup with two games left in qualifying.
Messi opening the scoring in the 12th minute when he converted a penalty after Agüero was fouled by Paraguay goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez in the box.
Nunez equalized for Paraguay six minutes later after Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero failed handle Nunez’s flick from a cross.
Nunez’ goal didn’t deter Argentina, though. Agüero did well to take the ball off of Messi in the 32nd minute and drive a low, left-footed shot past Fernandez to give Argentina the lead again. Di María added a third goal in the 50th minute after sprinting past the Paraguay defense and beating Fernandez with a low shot. Messi added a second goal from the penalty spot three minutes later to put the game out of reach.
Santa Cruz got a second goal for Paraguay in the 86th minute, but it was too little to late. And to add to Argentina’s dominance, Rodriguez put the finishing touches on the game in the closing minutes of the game with a fifth goal.
Argentina now stands atop the CONMEBOl qualifying group — Paraguay is in last place — with two games remaining. Second place Colombia was hoping to keep pace with Argentina and qualify as well on Tuesday, but was met with resistance when they went to Uruguay, a team looking to make-up for early mistakes in qualifying and get into one of the automatic qualifying spots.
Uruguay’s surge back into contention for a trip to Brazil next summer continued as they scored two goals in the final 13 minutes to beat Colombia, 2-0, at the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Edinson Cavani scored the winner in 77th minute after getting onto the end of a lofted ball from Maxi Pereira and directing downwards past Colombias goalkeeper David Ospina.
Christian Stuani, a second half substitute, scored the second for Uruguay after a Gaston Ramirez cutback found him at the penalty spot for a side-footed finish.
Óscar Tabárez’s squad moved into a tie with Ecuador for the fourth spot in CONMEBOL qualifying. Both teams have 22 points and are just two points behind third place Chile, who played Spain in a friendly and drew, 2-2, on Tuesday.
Ecuador was hoping to keep their grasp on fourth place and stay ahead of Uruguay in the CONMEBOL standings, but had to give up ground in a hard fought draw, 1-1, in Bolivia.
Ecuador had to fight back in the second half at the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz as Bolivia opened the scoring just after half-time with a right-footed shot from Jaime Arrascaita from outside the box. The 47th minute strike looked to be just the beginning of Bolivia’s scoring, but Ecuador was able to answer.
Bolivia controlled much of the game, enjoying 68 percent of possession and unleashing 31 shots, just 12 went on net, but Ecuador, thanks to a penalty after Ronald Raldes handled the ball in the Bolivia penalty area, was able to recoup a valuable point on the road at the Estadio Hernando Siles, which sits nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, and stay ahead of Uruguay on goal differential.
But Ecuador has to not only worry about Uruguay because Venezuela won’t go away either and is just three points out of a qualifying spot.
Venezuela needed to get a full three points at home against Peru on Tuesday to keep pace, and thankfully for La Vinotinto, an early Peru goal wasn’t enough to stop them from fighting back and beat Los Incas, 3-2, and giving them hope of sneaking into a qualifying spot.
Goals from Romulo Otero, Rondon and a penalty from César Iván González helped Venezuela get past Peru.
Peru took the lead in the 20th minute when Paolo Hurtado hit a right-footed after getting in behind the Venezuela defense and beat Venezuela goalkeeper Daniel Hernandez with a blistering shot.
But Salomón Rondón leveled the score in the 37th minute with an inventive goal that looked like it was toe-poked in from just inside the penalty area, and Venezuela never looked back, adding a second goal in the 62nd minute from the penalty spot after Peru’s Carlos Zambrano handled the ball in the box. The game winner came in the 77th minute as Otero was able to beat Raul Fernandez from outside the penalty area.
Zombrano pulled back a consolation goal in the 87th minute for Peru, but they were never able to recover.
Venezuela stayed three point behind Uruguay and Ecuador with the win, while Peru slipped back and almost surely has had their dreams of playing in Brazil dashed with the loss.
What did you make of the results? Do you see Uruguay slipping past Ecuador for the final automatic qualifying spot? Does Venezuela have a chance to catch either Uruguay or Ecaudor?
Share your thoughts below.