Over the course of the last week, South America's World Cup qualification campaign packed in three rounds of matches -- 15 in total -- to move from the halfway mark to the stage when two thirds of the matches have been completed. The away side only managed a goal in three of those games: the two hosted by bottom-of-the-table Venezuela and the consolation goal managed by Uruguay in their 4-1 defeat in Brazil.
Home advantage matters in South America with its vast distances, its temperature differences and local peculiarities such as altitude. It may have mattered even more over the last few days with fans returning to the stadiums. To have the slightest chance of making it to Qatar, Chile and Bolivia had to win in front of their own fans both on Sunday and in Thursday's 12th round. Mission accomplished.
At the extreme altitude of La Paz, Bolivia thrashed Paraguay 4-0 to draw level with them on points, level on goal difference and ahead of them in seventh place as a consequence of having more goals. Paraguay sacked coach Eduardo Berizzo soon after the final whistle.
One point ahead of Bolivia and Paraguay are Chile, who maintained their chances with a 3-0 win against Venezuela. The Ben Brereton Diaz show continued with a wonderfully taken third goal after two from midfielder Erik Pulgar had given Chile a first-half lead. Chile are now just three points off the qualification positions. They are not competing against Brazil or Argentina, who are over the hills and far away. Their battle now is with Ecuador, who have 17 points, and Colombia and Uruguay, who have 16.
The problem for Uruguay is that next month's games are tough: they host Argentina, who took them apart on Sunday, and then face the dreaded trip to La Paz to take on Bolivia. Uruguay find themselves down in the dogfight. The first half-hour of this month's games, at home to Colombia, was probably their finest football of the campaign so far. But the deadlock was not broken and they had to settle for a 0-0 draw, before they came up against the full force of Argentina and Brazil.
For the trip to Brazil there was no repeat of the three centre-back system they had unsuccessfully used against Argentina. It was back to 4-4-2, with the Luis Suarez-Edinson Cavani partnership reunited. This, too, may well have been a mistake. As it turned out, this was a game when Uruguay would have been much better advised to pack the midfield. They ran into a Brazil side which sent the crowd in Manaus home happy after coming up with their best performance in years.
There were three keys to the Brazil display. One was Neymar, back on form and clearly with a point to prove. He was free to roam, and this time there was no orthodox centre-forward, and so he was free to roam into that space, too. Coach Tite describes Neymar as being both bow and arrow, and, in addition to the constructive side of his play, he may well be Brazil's best centre-forward as well -- but he needs someone to give him Neymar style passes. This time the defence-splitting ball came from an unlikely source, Manchester United midfielder Fred, who chipped over the defensive line for Neymar to time his run, control the ball, keep his cool and fire home from a narrow angle.
The second key was the form of Lucas Paqueta, on and from the left wing, and his combination with Neymar. Before the 20-minute mark Brazil had made the game safe when Paqueta once more beat right back Nahitan Nandez and found Neymar, whose deflected shot was saved and turned in at the far post by the third part of the Brazil success story: Leeds winger Raphinha.
Given his first start after two wonderful substitute appearances, Raphinha was excellent once more and put the game totally beyond Uruguay's reach when he rounded off a counter-attack by meeting a pass from Neymar with a magnificent left-footed strike. Neymar, Paqueta and Raphinha were irresistible, and with the team conceding so few goals, this was a performance that hints that Brazil can go to next year's World Cup with real ambitions.
Much the same applies to Argentina, who extended their long unbeaten run with a 1-0 win over Peru in Buenos Aires. After a bright start they were not at their best, with Lionel Messi struggling to find his usual precision. But there is now a solid team around Messi, and his teammates made good use of the space that he opens up down the right side. As so often, Giovani Lo Celso played the important linking pass, right-back Nahuel Molina played a neat exchange with Rodrigo De Paul and sent in a cross that was met at the near post by a bullet header from centre-forward Lautaro Martinez. Against the run of play, Peru were awarded a penalty in the second half, but Yoshimar Yotun shot over, meaning that Argentina have now kept four consecutive clean sheets.
Colombia, meanwhile, have kept three shutouts. But the problem is that they have also failed to score in all of these games, and have only goalless draws to look back on from this month's matches. The latest 0-0, at home to Ecuador, is the most frustrating, especially because they thought they had won it right at the end.
In the 10th minute of stoppage time a long, desperate throw from the right fell at the feet of giant centre-back Yerry Mina, who turned and guided the ball inside the far post. The stadium in Barranquilla erupted in celebration. On one hand it seemed harsh on Ecuador, who only last month lost away to Uruguay with a stoppage-time goal, in a game where they seemed unlucky not to be awarded a penalty. On the other hand, it seemed just what Ecuador deserved. They had been happy with a draw all along, and overdid the timewasting to an absurd degree. True, they had been given a penalty only for VAR to rule it out for a narrow offside early in the move. Justice was probably done, then, when VAR ruled out Mina's goal, deciding that the ball had brushed his hand as he brought it under control.
The sequence of goalless draws surely highlights the importance of a fit and firing James Rodriguez. One of the best performances by anyone at the 2018 World Cup was Colombia's destruction of Poland. It was the only time they could count on a fit Rodriguez. Without him they looked ordinary. And though they are unbeaten without him in the eight rounds they have played under coach Reinaldo Rueda, six of those games have ended in draws. And next up is Brazil away.
The return of Rodriguez could make a difference in the home straight. And a game next month that could really make a difference is Ecuador's trip to Chile. Before Sunday's games the gap between them was nine points. Chile have now cut that gap to four -- and in November they hope Brereton Diaz can make it closer still.