With Brazil rejoining the fray, Chile preparing for their maiden qualifiers as continental champions and Argentina nursing open wounds from last year's FIFA World Cup™ Final loss, intriguing storylines abounded in the South American section of the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, carried out in St. Petersburg on 25 July. Colombia, meanwhile, need to regroup, while Paraguay and Peru are on a quest for consolidation after recent progress. The campaign promises to be as thrilling and hard-fought as ever, right down to the last kick.
The biggest talking point has to be the return of A Seleção, who were exempt from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup as hosts . As well as bringing their distinctive aura, the five-time world champions will only heighten the fierceness of the competition. With four-and-a-half slots in Russia up for grabs, the presence of another powerhouse will make every point even more precious.
A glance at the final table in the last few editions confirms this effect. On the road to Brazil 2014, there was a five-point gap between the team that finished fifth, advancing to the intercontinental play-offs, and the sixth-placed side, who were knocked out. In 2006 and 2010, with Brazil in the picture, the margin was a single point. The 2002 campaign was even crueller still, with Uruguay edging out Colombia in sixth on goal difference.
Peru coach Ricardo Gareca is under no illusions about the challenge: "It's going to be very tough for everyone, as we know that there are countries who always make it to the World Cup and will be banking on qualifying," he said, albeit without naming Brazil or his native Argentina.
The schedule was prearranged in such a way as to avoid any country having to take on the two heavyweights back-to-back on a double matchday. The pair will meet in the so-called Clásico de Sudamérica (South American classic) in the third and 12th rounds of fixtures.
Neymar and Co will be bidding to get back on track following their disappointment on home soil in 2014 and their quarter-final exit at the Copa America 2015. "These players are under a lot of pressure," said coach Dunga, while denying that his side are favourites: "Qualifying has always been tough and it will be all the more so this time round, because the other teams have improved and have a lot of players plying their trade in Europe."
Argentina and Uruguay are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of coaching regimes. The Albiceleste are one of six teams with a different man at the helm compared to the previous campaign. Coach Gerardo Martino's men will be up against a Celeste side for whom Oscar Tabarez will be taking the qualifying reins for a third time. These most familiar of foes – the neighbours boast the oldest international rivalry on the continent, having first faced off in 1901 – will renew hostilities in the Clásico del Río de la Plata, named after the river that separates the countries.
On Matchdays 2 and 10, the Uruguayans will have the chance to settle a score with Colombia, their conquerors in the Round of 16 at Brazil 2014. The outcome of these games has proven vital in recent editions of qualifying.
Another showdown that is always eagerly awaited is Peru vs Chile, which also has its own special name: the Clásico del Pacífico (Pacific classic). On this occasion it will feature a quirk that will also be seen in many other encounters: both coaches will hail from Argentina. A total of six of the ten teams will kick off the qualifiers led by an Argentinian: Argentina (Gerardo Martino), Paraguay (Ramon Diaz), Ecuador (Gustavo Quinteros), Colombia (Jose Pekerman), Peru (Ricardo Gareca) and Chile (Jorge Sampaoli).
Bolivia are the only side without a coach three months before the ball gets rolling, a probable disadvantage ahead of what Tabarez has called "the most difficult qualifying group in the world".