In October 2015, the long road towards the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ began for South American sides, a qualifying competition that welcomed heavy hitters Brazil back into the mix. After the opening four rounds of action, Ecuador have sprung a surprise by storming into top spot with a 100 per cent record, while the key men of closest pursuers Uruguay have ensured La Celeste coped in the absence of star striker Luis Suarez.

Brazil and Argentina, for their part, both stumbled early on, but the pair appear to have steadied their respective ships and will no doubt be firm challengers in the race for CONMEBOL's four direct qualifying berths. Likewise Chile, who have kept faith with the now customary bold approach that helped secure Copa America 2015 glory, though La Roja have picked up just one point in their last two games.

Paraguay, who failed to qualify for Brazil 2014, are in fourth and have been showing signs of a resurgence under Ramon Diaz. Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, in contrast, are in need of greater stability to build on the positives of their performances thus far. Venezuela, the only side yet to put points on the board, will need a major upturn in fortunes to keep their hopes alive. brings you a closer look at the early jousting in the region.

Memorable match
Argentina 0-2 Ecuador - 8 October 2015
Ecuador touched down on Argentinian soil having drawn one and lost six of their seven previous qualifiers there, though they faced an Albiceleste denied the injured Lionel Messi and which lost Sergio Aguero after just 20 minutes’ play. La Tri, showing plenty of determination and fierce tactical discipline, claimed all three points thanks to two late goals via Frickson Erazo and Felipe Caicedo. The defeat was only Argentina’s third ever at home in World Cup qualifying and the first in Buenos Aires – after 40 encounters over 22 years. For Ecuador, it was simply the perfect start to the campaign.

The surprise
Reaching the World Cup has been a healthy habit for Ecuador in the past 15 years, though they have never previously enjoyed such a successful start to the qualifying phase, either in terms of results or performances. Following up said first win in Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay were subsequently dispatched at home prior to crowning the year with a victory away over Venezuela. Gustavo Quinteros’s charges have been solid across the board, starting with keeper Alexander Dominguez, and have settled on a style perfectly executed by the likes of Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa, Jefferson Montero and Caicedo. La Tri have set the bar high and will be determined to keep the momentum going.

Players to watch
Throughout football history, South America has provided players of vast technical ability, character and talent who have proved themselves in the world’s toughest leagues. And this edition of the region’s World Cup qualifiers has witnessed several players charging to the fore for their national teams, such as Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa – turning in fine displays for A Seleção and netting a goal against Peru – and Everton’s Argentina defender Ramiro Funes Mori.

Indeed, the latter took the field against Brazil with no previous senior international experience, only to perform so well he was handed a starting berth against Colombia. Another young centre-back showing character and ability beyond his years is Atletico de Madrid’s Jose Maria Gimenez, who is growing into an influential figure for Uruguay boss Oscar El Maestro Tabarez on the road to Russia.

The stats
5 – The number of games Venezuela have gone without a win in World Cup qualifying, their last three points coming in the Brazil 2014 preliminaries, when they beat Peru 3-2 on 10 September 2013 in Puerto La Cruz. Since then La Vinotinto have drawn 1-1 with Paraguay and lost their opening four Russia 2018 qualifiers - their worst start to the competition since the Korea/Japan 2002 edition. For head coach Noel Sanvicente, defensive lapses have been the biggest frustration: “Since I’ve been charge of the national team, I feel like the king of gift-giving”.

What they said
“Games like this teach us something that will help us grow as their qualifiers progress – which is that if we can become more aggressive then we’ll improve. I think the qualifiers are all about winning and, though we didn’t have a good start, we’re hopeful of recovering.”  
Peru coach Ricardo Gareca, speaking after the 3-0 loss to Brazil in Salvador.

Next up…
In March 2016, Ecuador will square off with improving Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay will contest another edition of a traditional South American clásico, and Copa America champs Chile will host the always competitive Argentina, who will be keen to avenge their Copa final defeat against La Roja. Nor must we forget Peru-Venezuela and Bolivia-Colombia, encounters that will continue to help set the tone for the sides’ qualifying fortunes.