With memories still fresh of some notable South American performances at Brazil 2014, the continent’s national teams are about to embark on the qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. The journey to the next world finals begins on Thursday, with four direct tickets at stake along with a place in the intercontinental play-offs.

Missing from the day’s five games will be some of South America’s finest players, chief among them the injured Lionel Messi, who will sit out Argentina’s opener at home to Ecuador. Meanwhile, Brazil will be without talisman Neymar when they make their return to the qualification fray against reigning Copa America champions Chile in Santiago.

Shorn of the services of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Uruguay face a tough assignment in La Paz, while Colombia, who will be without James Rodriguez, begin their qualification bid in Peru. In the day’s other game, Venezuela, the only side on the continent never to grace the world finals, entertain Paraguay. 

FIFA.com sets the scene for Thursday’s action.

The big game

Still on a high after lifting the Copa America for the first time in their history, La Roja have their star trio of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo available for the visit of the five-time world champions. The match gives the Chileans an opportunity to avenge their last-16 penalty-shootout exit at the hands of A Seleção at Brazil 2014, while the Brazilians, who will have to make do without the suspended Neymar, have plenty to prove following their disappointing showing at the continental finals. Coach Dunga, who surprised everyone by calling up the veteran Kaka, will also be keen to erase memories of Brazil’s showing at last year’s world finals and restore the prestige of a side making its return to qualifying duties after a six-year absence.

Bolivia will be hoping for a winning start in La Paz when they welcome Uruguay. Coached by Julio Cesar Baldivieso, La Verde impressed in reaching the last eight at the recent Copa America and, in the absence of stalwarts Marcelo Martins and Ronald Raldes, will be looking for inspiration from a clutch of new faces. With Cavani and Suarez both sidelined, La Celeste coach Oscar Tabarez will call on the experience of Martin Caceres and Edigio Arevalo Rios to help his side negotiate what is an awkward opening fixture.

Colombia go into the competition with hopes high following their run to the last eight at Brazil 2014, although they will have to kick off their campaign without Real Madrid livewire James Rodriguez. Jose Pekerman has a talented squad to call on nevertheless and will be anxious for his men to make a solid start against a Peru side that took third place in the Copa America. With the likes of Paolo Guerrero, Claudio Pizarro and Jefferson Farfan in their ranks, the Peruvians will not make life easy for their Cafetero hosts.

Embarking on yet another bid to break their World Cup appearance duck, Noel Sanvicente’s Venezuela will look to striker Salomon Rondon, centre-half Fernando Amorebieta and talented midfielder Tomas Rincon to get them off to the best possible start against Paraguay. After missing out on qualification last time round, La Albirroja have been undergoing a transitional phase, with coach Ramon Diaz looking to forge an attacking style of play with a side that acquitted itself well at this year’s Copa America.

Finally, Brazil 2014 runners-up Argentina take on Ecuador in Buenos Aires without Messi but with Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Angel Di Maria all in fine form heading into the game. Albiceleste boss Gerardo Tata Martino is likely to make a change or two, having called up talented midfield duo Erik Lamela and Javier Pastore. Knocked out in the group phase at last year’s World Cup, La Tri have never beaten Argentina away from home, having managed just the one draw from their six previous visits to the country.

Player to watch
With star man Messi still convalescing from his injury, Argentina will look to Sergio Aguero to fill the gap. Buoyed by a five-goal haul in his last Premier League outing with Manchester City, El Kun will be keen to maintain his scoring form at the Estadio Monumental and atone for a somewhat lacklustre showing at Brazil 2014, where injuries prevented him from producing his best.

Did you know?
Uruguay have never won a World Cup qualifier in Bolivia. Six of their nine previous visits to the country in the preliminaries ended in defeat, with the other three games ending in draws.

What they said
“We’re without our most important player and we’re all going to have to do that bit more. We’ve played without him before, though, and the team has responded. I hope we can do it again and that Messi’s absence is an incentive and not an excuse,” Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano.

Matchday 1 fixtures:
8 October