By Michael Place
RIO DE JANEIRO, March 29 (Xinhua) -- Xinhua looks at key takeaways from the latest round of South American zone (CONMEBOL) World Cup qualifiers.
BRAZIL ARE BACK
Brazil became the first team to secure a berth at next year's World Cup in Russia (other than the hosts) by defeating Uruguay 4-1 and Paraguay 3-0 in the past week. In the process, they racked up their eighth consecutive win under coach Tite, who replaced Dunga in June after the team's group-stage elimination from the Copa America.
It's not only a return to Brazil's old air of invincibility that is making people take notice. The Selecao are playing with a flair that some are comparing to the 1970 and 1982 World Cup teams that captivated the world. Under Tite, Brazil have scored 24 goals - an average of three per match - and conceded just two.
The third goal in their victory over Paraguay in Sao Paulo hearkened back to Brazil's glory days, featuring a delightful exchange between Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho before Marcelo nonchalantly chipped the ball over Paraguayan goalkeeper Antony Silva.
CRUNCH TIME FOR ARGENTINA
Argentina had not beaten Bolivia away from home since 2005 and their troubles in the dizzying heights of La Paz continued on Tuesday with a 2-0 defeat to Mauricio Soria's team. The Albiceleste were without five-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi, who was handed a four-match ban for verbally abusing an assistant referee just hours earlier.
The result left Argentina outside CONMEBOL's automatic qualification places and put them in danger of missing their first World Cup since 1970. It also exposed the team's dependence on Messi, and that is why Argentina officials will likely do all they can to reduce the 29-year-old's penalty via the FIFA appeals process.
COLOMBIA ARE THE REAL DEAL
Questions were asked about Colombia's credentials after an unconvincing 1-0 home win over Bolivia last Thursday, a result that followed a 3-0 loss to Argentina and home draws against Chile and Uruguay. But Jose Pekerman's side put all doubt aside on Tuesday with a 2-0 away victory over Ecuador.
Real Madrid midfielder James Rodriguez continued his rich vein of goalscoring form with his fifth goal of the campaign, while Juventus winger Juan Cuadrado was also on the scoresheet in Quito. Victories in their remaining two home matches should be enough to secure the Cafeteros a place at their second consecutive World Cup.
ECUADOR ARE IN FREEFALL
Ecuador set the CONMEBOL tournament ablaze early, leading the standings after victories in each of their first four matches. Since then the team has managed just two wins, two draws and six losses, and they are now in a battle just to earn a playoff spot.
The loss of form has led to growing calls for coach Gustavo Quinteros to be sacked. Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) president Carlos Villacis refused to back the beleaguered manager during a press conference on Wednesday, saying a decision would be made on his future next Monday following a meeting of FEF directors.
With or without the Argentina-born Quinteros, Ecuador will need more from their underperforming players if they are to qualify for their fourth World Cup, particularly Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia and Everton forward Enner Valencia.
ARCE NOT MAKING FRIENDS
Paraguay coach Francisco Arce had some strident words for his Brazil counterpart Tite after the pair clashed several times on the Corinthians Arena touchline.
"He is a little uptight," Arce told a news conference after the match. "He shouted at me for no reason, telling me to stop my players tackling from behind. At no point were we doing that. It's not the way we play."
Tite was not the only person rubbed the wrong way by Arce on Wednesday. Dario Lezcano, Paraguay's top scorer during the qualifiers with four goals, quit the national team after he was left out of the matchday squad.
"I would have been ok with being on the bench but I never expected to be left out. I have never been treated like that," Lezcano told reporters.