Break out that samba music and mix yourself a Caipirinha. Brazil is back!
Neymar’s dramatic Olympic gold-medal-winning penalty kick not only eased the two-year World Cup heartache in that soccer-obsessed nation, but it seems to have energized the national team.
Going into September, Brazil was in sixth place in South America, two spots out of automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Midway through October, after four consecutive victories, the Selecao is sitting pretty atop the CONMEBOL standings
The five-time World Cup champs had little trouble with Bolivia and Venezuela, and though those are two of the weakest teams in the region, Brazil appears to be playing the beautiful game the way its fans expect. The true test will come Nov. 10 when it plays rival Argentina. But for now, coach Tite seems to have the Brazilians going in the right direction with eight qualifiers remaining.
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Argentina, meanwhile, is in a major funk. Nobody’s tangoing at the moment.
The Argentines slipped to fifth place after a 2-2 tie with last-place Venezuela, a 2-2 tie at Peru and a shocking 1-0 home loss to Paraguay that left fans booing and jeering. This is the first time Argentina has lost two home matches during a World Cup qualifying run.
Only the top four teams earn automatic berths to the World Cup. The fifth-place team enters a playoff for another spot.
It’s really no mystery what is plaguing the Albiceleste. Lionel Messi is injured, and Argentina Without Messi is a very different team from Argentina With Messi. His groin continues to be a problem. Argentina has won all three qualifiers he played in and only one of the seven he has not.
And things are only going to get more challenging. The Argentines’ next match is that Nov. 10 showdown at first-place Brazil, and then they host Colombia. Paraguay and Chile are breathing down Argentina’s neck in the standings.
Elsewhere in the world, lovable Iceland, which captured the world’s hearts during Euro 2016, is still on a roll. The Icelanders beat Turkey 2-0 and rallied to beat Finland. They remain undefeated through three matches, with a tough game at Croatia coming up next. Iceland has never qualified for a World Cup. This might be the one.
Portuguese fans are surely thrilled to have Cristiano Ronaldo back from his injury break. He came back with a bang, scoring four goals against Andorra and scoring once against the Faroe Islands. OK, so Andorra and the Faroe Islands are not the most dangerous opponents in the world, but still, it’s five goals. He is the leading scorer in UEFA qualifying thus far.
As for the United States, coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows a lot more about his team after a 2-0 win at Cuba and a 1-1 tie with New Zealand. Now comes the real test: a pair of World Cup qualifiers in November against rival Mexico and tough-to-beat Costa Rica.
“It’s been a good 10 days because we wanted to get some answers for a couple things heading toward the Mexico clash, and I think we found a couple very interesting answers,” Klinsmann said.
He knows, for example, that Julian Green is worth another look after basically disappearing from the national team radar since the 2014 World Cup. Green, who plays for Bayern Munich, is a more mature player at 21 than he was at 18 and showed with goals in the two friendlies that he can be a scoring threat in the absence of Clint Dempsey (irregular heartbeat).
He also knows that several other young players — Christian Pulisic, Jordan Morris, Lynden Gooch and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath — are likely to be part of the equation heading into the second half of qualifying. And that Sasha Kljestan is back on the radar after a two-year hiatus from the U.S. roster.
The infusion of new players should make the team stronger.
“It gives them also a feeling that, ‘You know what? He’s giving them opportunities. I don’t want to lose my spot.’ Sacha comes back in, and he’s taking a spot. Jermaine [Jones] has injury problems and suddenly things open up,” Klinsmann said. “Who’s the next in line? It makes them think, but it also really gives life to that whole competition. It gives training sessions real meaning because, hey, it’s about a spot, you know? And it keeps them on their toes in a good way. … The older ones hang in there and, obviously, defend their position but, again, they’re not getting younger.”
MLS: East — NYCFC and N.Y. Red Bulls (51), Toronto (49), Montreal (44), D.C. United (43). West — Colorado (57), Dallas (56), L.A. (48), Real Salt Lake and Seattle (45).
NASL: N.Y. Cosmos (38), Edmonton (33), Miami FC (30), Indy (28), OKC (26).
English Premier League: Manchester City and Arsenal (19), Tottenham (18), Liverpool and Chelsea (16), Everton (15).
La Liga: Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid (18), Sevilla (17), Barcelona (16), Villarreal (13).
Serie A: Juventus (21), Roma (16), Napoli (14), Lazio, Chievo and AC Milan (13).
Ligue 1: Nice (23), PSG and Monaco (19), Toulouse (17), Guingamp (14).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (17), Cologne (15), Hertha (14), Dortmund and Hoffenheim (13), Leipzig (12).
Sunday: Middlesbrough vs. Watford (8:25 a.m., NBCSN), Southampton vs. Burnley (10:55 a.m., NBCSN), Montreal vs. Toronto (3 p.m., ESPN), Portland vs. Colorado (5:15 p.m., ESPN).