Uruguay, Ecuador clinch final automatic CONMEBOL World Cup spots with playoffs up for grabs

It wasn’t pretty, but Uruguay found a way to win against Peru and booked a spot at the 2022 World Cup. Getty Images

It started a few mysterious minutes late and ended in confusion, but the consequence of Uruguay’s 1-0 win over Peru on Thursday is that, with a round to spare, South America has completed its set of automatic World Cup qualifiers.

Brazil and Argentina had long since booked their place at the 2022 showpiece in Qatar. Ecuador were so close that they crossed the line despite a lacklustre 3-1 defeat away to Paraguay. And Uruguay have joined them — the first winners of the World Cup making sure of qualification on the day that Italy, the winner of the second and third tournaments, fell so surprisingly short after a loss to heavy underdogs North Macedonia.

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Two things were needed for Uruguay to make it through without sweating on Tuesday’s last round. One was their victory. The other was that Chile could not make history by becoming the first side to beat Brazil in a World Cup qualifier on their soil.

This never looked likely. It took the hosts almost until halftime to break down the Chileans, and it needed a thoroughly unnecessary penalty to open the floodgates. But Brazil were in control from start to finish. A Chile victory would have needed a large dose of luck and a flawless display. Any chance of the latter evaporated when right-back Mauricio Isla foolishly went to ground and brought down Neymar when there was no immediate goal threat. Neymar calmly stoked home the penalty. Another mistake almost immediately doubled the score. Claudio Bravo kicked straight to right winger Anthony. His pass infield was dummied by Neymar and reached Vinicius Junior, who found space to slip in his first senior international goal.

Chile briefly thought they were back in the game soon after half-time, when substitute Joaquin Montecinos set up Arturo Vidal. But the goal was ruled out for offside. By the end of the match the final score could have been bigger than 4-0, with Brazil showing their attacking strength in depth with goals from substitutes Phillipe Coutinho (with another penalty) and Richarlison. Chile had slipped to predictable defeat, leaving Uruguay’s qualification in their own hands.

The night’s four games (Argentina host Venezuela on Friday) were all supposed to kick off at exactly the same time. For some unknown reason, Uruguay’s crunch game with Peru got underway seven minutes late. As it happened there was no advantage to anyone — all of the important actors were sharing the same field. Uruguay needed a win to be sure. A Peruvian victory would leave them in pole position going into the final round.

Uruguay’s urgency was reflected in their team selection — the same shape of the side that won at home to Venezuela in the previous round, with two playmakers and two strikers. But whereas against Venezuela they were off to a rapid start, Uruguay were frustrated by Ricardo Gareca’s well-drilled Peru. Uruguay’s attacking stars found little space in which to operate. Peru defensive midfielder Renato Tapia swept up everything in front of the centre-backs and the first clear chances fell to the away side. Andre Carrillo’s cross from the right cut out Diego Godin and gave Gianluca Lapadula a free header — sent down but straight at keeper Sergio Rochet. And then Lapadula latched on to a sloppy back pass from the other centre-back, Jose Maria Gimenez, and Rochet had to plunge left to turn around his shot.

It took Uruguay 40 minutes to register their first shot. But they were starting to find some rhythm, and their attacking intentions were clear from the presence of two defenders in the decisive moment of the match. Left-back Matias Olivera slipped in Darwin Nunez, who crossed to the far post, Gimenez’s stretching shot came back off the bar and Giorgian De Arrascaeta slammed home the loose ball.

After the interval, Uruguay’s Federico Valverde smashed the bar with a long-range shot. But his team were now mostly concerned with running down the clock. There were times in the second half when the stadium ball boys were working with dubious enthusiasm. Defensive substitutions left them without pace for the counterattack, and the game now turned on whether Peru could find a way through. There seemed little possibility. Peru struggled even to create a chance, and Rochet in goal was untroubled until a moment of controversy in stoppage time.

Peru left-back Miguel Trauco overhit a cross from deep. Rochet had to back pedal, and decided to catch the ball rather than turn it over the bar. His momentum carried him back way past the line, holding the ball forward as he went. Did the whole ball cross the line? The referee’s assistant judged that it had not, and there was no clear VAR image to prove otherwise. Peru, predictably, disagreed. There was anger on the bench, and anger among the players — including, somewhat ridiculously, keeper Pedro Gallese, who from the other end of the pitch could not possibly have had a reliable view of the incident.

The Peru team would be better advised to save their anger for Tuesday’s final round and unleash it in Lima on the Paraguayans. Their fate is in their own hands. A win will guarantee them the playoff spot and a match against Asian opponents in June. Two teams will hope that they slip up: Chile, who host Uruguay, and, a point ahead of them, Colombia, who finally ended their goal drought with a 3-0 win at home to a weak and inexperienced Bolivia team, and now move on with renewed hope to face Venezuela.

The four automatic qualification slots have been defined. But the battle for the playoff position will go all the way to the final whistle.