By Nelson Belen, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – It was a showdown of the top two teams in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying on Thursday, March 23rd, as number one Brazil traveled to Montevideo to take on number two Uruguay.
A virtuoso three-goal performance by midfielder Paulinho gave Brazil a dominant 4-1 victory and showed the world that the Seleção (Brazil’s national team) may just be the team to beat in 2018.
Since manager Tite took the reins of the team from the embattled Dunga in June 2016, Brazil has been hugely impressive, going undefeated in seven games heading into Thursday’s matchup. Uruguay had been almost as impressive, riding an eight-game home winning streak in World Cup qualifications, including six shutouts.
Despite the impressive outcome on Thursday, Brazil actually got off to a shaky start. Nine minutes in, Brazil’s goalkeeper, Alisson Becker, took down Uruguay’s star striker Edinson Cavani who had beaten the Brazilian keeper to a chested back-pass.
On the ensuing penalty shot, Cavani launched a scoring shot low and to the right of a diving Alisson to give Uruguay the early 1-0 lead sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
But the lead would be short-lived. At the eighteen-minute mark, Brazil midfielder Paulinho, would catch the whole stadium, including Uruguay’s defense, by surprise. Off a Neymar pass, Paulinho streaked across the midfield past several Uruguayan defenders and, from nearly forty yards out, unleashed a thunderous shot that found the back of the net to tie the game.
Brazil almost took the lead at the 33rd-minute, when a Neymar free kick rebounded off Uruguay’s wall of defenders and into the waiting foot of Casemiro. But a great save by Uruguayan keeper Silva would keep the game tied at 1-1 heading into the halftime break.
Minutes into the start of the second half, Brazil’s number 15 would strike again. Off another great save by Silva, Paulinho pounced on the rebound and scored on the follow giving Brazil the 2-1 lead.
At the seventieth minute, Brazil’s captain, Neymar, stepped up and showed why he is considered one the best players in the world. Receiving a cross-field pass, Neymar sprinted into the heart of Uruguay’s defense past several defenders.
As Silva closed in on the captain in the goal area, Neymar skillfully lofted the ball some twenty feet in the air over the helpless keeper. Silva could only watch as the ball seemed to float in the air for an eternity before slowly falling into the net.
With the 3-1 lead, a frantic Uruguay tried desperately to mount some kind of offense, but Brazil’s defense stymied them at every opportunity.
With the game all but decided, in the closing seconds, Paulinho would make sure the Brazil fans who journeyed to Montevideo would leave having seen something special.
A cross from the right landed perfectly at Paulinho’s chin and the midfielder promptly chested home his hat-trick goal from about two yards out as the clock wound down and Brazil celebrated the 4-1 victory.
With the win, Brazil sits comfortably atop the CONMEBOL qualifying table with 30 points. Uruguay, with 23 points, now finds itself clinging to second-place. Following their late victory over Chile last night, a surging Argentina is only a single point behind Uruguay.
With only five matches left in the qualifying, it’s getting down to the wire. Only the top five teams in the CONMEBOL qualifying table earn an automatic World Cup qualification.
It will be a quick turnaround for Brazil, whose next qualifying match is on Tuesday, March 28th, against Paraguay at Arena Corinthians in São Paulo.