Neymar's petulance puts Brazil in danger, while Uruguay top CONMEBOL
At the halfway point of World Cup qualifying, Brazil, Uruguay and Ecuador are looking good, Argentina are missing Messi and Chile are outsiders.
1. Brazil have to get a grip on Neymar
Things could hardly have gone better for Tite since taking over as manager of Brazil. His team have put together three victories, consolidating an attractive style of play and winning back their own supporters. It could hardly have gone better. But there is one problem: the behaviour of the star player.
In the 5-0 win over Bolivia, Neymar picked up yet another yellow card for a petulant flare up. He will miss Tuesday's trip to Venezuela, meaning that he has been suspended for half of the first 10 rounds of qualifying. If anything, he has been a bit lucky. Some thought his flying foul against Colombia last month was worthy of a red card, and he could easily have picked up a yellow against Bolivia when, frustrated by the fact that he had not been awarded a foul, he kicked the ball at a prone Bolivian. But there was not long to wait for the yellow that keeps him out of the Venezuela match.
Neymar's disciplinary problems are unlikely to be an impediment to Brazil's qualification. But they could turn up in Russia, just as they did in last year's Copa America, when his clash with the referee earned him a long suspension.
Such a magnificently skilful player will always be a target for rough play. And the way Neymar plays -- showboating and continually looking to win free kicks -- often brings him into conflict with referees. Opponents are, by now, well aware that he can be wound up. Previous coach Dunga did nothing to clamp down on Neymar's excesses. Tite needs to draw a firm line.
2. Thin lines and big divisions
The CONMEBOL World Cup-qualifying campaign has now reached the halfway stage, and this ninth round has opened up a gap between the front five and the chasing pack. The four automatic qualification slots plus the playoff position are currently in the hands of Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina -- and that will still be the case after Tuesday's 10th round. This was a bad night for Paraguay and Chile, who have some catching up to do, and a worse one for Peru (despite their spirited second half) and Bolivia, whose chances of making it to Russia are looking very remote.
But the game between the top and bottom team in the table showed just how fine the line can be between triumph and defeat. Venezuela, last in the table, had clearly done their homework. They had seen how leaders Uruguay took Paraguay apart last month in Montevideo. The Paraguayan full-backs pushed up, with Uruguay seeking to win the ball and play quickly to Luis Suarez in the channel down the flanks.
Venezuela adjusted their formation, switching to 4-2-3-1 to make sure they had the wings locked down. The full-backs would play a conservative role, allowing the back four to stay compact, with the wide midfielders taking the battle to the Uruguayans. It came so close to working. The Uruguayan defence had real problems coping with Adalberto Penaranda down the Venezuelan left. His linkup play with centre-forward Salomon Rondon caused all sorts of problems. Venezuela missed clear chances to take the lead -- especially when Penaranda put wide of an open goal.
But one moment ruined their night's work. Left-back Mikel Villanueva was caught in possession by Carlos Sanchez, who sent a superb long diagonal pass into the space behind Alexander Gonzalez, the full-back on the other flank. Suarez had moved into the space, and his wonderfully flighted left-footed cross was met by a diving header from Nicolas Lodeiro which beat the goalkeeper. After nearly 30 minutes of executing their game plan to near perfection, one slip up had allowed Uruguay to show what they do so well -- rob the ball, break quickly down the flanks and get men in the box. Uruguay went on to win 3-0, but it could have turned out very differently.
3. Bolivia's tactical blunder
Bolivia's new coach Angel Guillermo Hoyos is known for the boldness of his approach. Last month, away to Chile, he selected an attacking team and asked them to press high up the field. Goalkeeper Carlos Lampe confessed afterwards that he had been worried. "I told my teammates that, with this formation, either they are going to put five or six goals past us, or we'll get a good result." Bolivia had to dig deep to survive Chile's early pressure, but ended up having the clearest chances in the second half of a game that ended 0-0.
Against Brazil, though, Lampe's fears came true. Captain Ronald Raldes was caught in possession by Neymar, who gave Brazil an early lead. Calm and confident, Brazil passed their way through and around the Bolivian defensive line and the contest was quickly over. Brazil were four goals ahead at half-time, and eased up after the break to stroll to a 5-0 win.
4. Argentina are lucky Messi unretired
Without their little genius Lionel Messi, there is no guarantee that Argentina will qualify for Russia. Injury has forced him out of all but three of the nine rounds. With him on the field, Argentina have won all their matches. Without him, they have one victory in six tries -- and this latest 2-2 draw with Peru once more exposed some limitations.
The defensive unit is creaking. Coach Edgardo Bauza speaks highly of the centre-back combination of Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori, but they frequently look vulnerable. So often, the defence is held together by Javier Mascherano. When he makes a mistake the entire house can crumble. Mascherano's disastrous back pass -- what on earth was he thinking? -- handed Peru a penalty which gave them a late equaliser fully deserved by their second-half display.
Defensive problems aside, Argentina looked disjointed -- predictably, given their starting lineup. They began to establish some control when, belatedly, Ever Banega replaced a catatonic Sergio Aguero to knit the side together. Without Mascherano's blunder they would probably have come away with three points. Instead, they drop to fifth, and Tuesday's match against Paraguay takes on extra importance.
5. Ecuador take advantage from unlikely place
It is easy to dismiss the throw-in as a largely irrelevant action in the game, but that would be a mistake, as was on display in Ecuador's win over Chile.
In the space of six minutes, a well-disputed, crunch game was transformed into a comfortable home victory by two Ecuadorian goals that started with throw-ins. For a team like Ecuador, who thrive on fast breaks down the flanks, the well-taken throw is a dangerous weapon, allowing them to get the ball forward quickly in the position they favour. Seeing the ball out of play, twice Chile switched off. The first time, a throw taken down the left led to a rapid combination which sent Enner Valencia away, and he squared for Antonio Valencia to fire home. And then Ecuador took advantage of the fact that there is no offside from a throw, getting Antonio Valencia in the space behind Chile's left-back to send in a low cross, half-cleared and crashed home by Cristian Ramirez.
The humble throw-in might seem a banal act. But it helped Ecuador reverse their slide, and led to a 3-0 win that carries them back up to third, and leaves continental champions Chile in real danger of missing out on a trip to Russia.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.