The South American qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ is set to return to action following the hiatus at the end of last year. Unbeaten leaders Ecuador, who have earned maximum points so far, will be intent on cementing their place at the summit, while Brazil and Uruguay go head-to-head in a classic encounter steeped in history, with both eager to stay near the top of the standings. Elsewhere, Chile and Argentina will meet again as they eye all three points to stay in touch with the front-runners. FIFA.com previews the fifth round of qualifying matches.
The hosts, buoyed by victory over Peru in their last qualifier, have their sights set on a win that would consolidate their place near the top of the table. Coach Dunga has put his faith in many of the players who began the qualifying campaign, such as talisman Neymar, as well as Dani Alves, Willian and David Luiz. Veteran Kaka makes a return to the national set-up after a surprise inclusion, but Marcelo is absent with injury. The match in Recife will be a yardstick for Brazil to gauge their progress following slip-ups at the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in Chile. Meanwhile, Uruguay go into this fixture full of confidence following a resounding 3-0 success over continental champions Chile. Coach Oscar El Maestro Tabarez, is expected to be able to call upon the returning Luis Suarez, one of the world's best and most in-form strikers. There will not be many changes to La Celeste, who can once again count on linchpins Fernando Muslera, Diego Godin and Edinson Cavani, as they seek to add to their long list of exploits with a first-ever World Cup qualifying victory on Brazilian soil.
The other attractions
Chile's euphoria at lifting their maiden Copa America title and starting these qualifiers with victories has now waned, giving way to a period of uncertainty. In addition to drawing at home to Colombia and losing in the Estadio Centenario to Uruguay, they have also lost coach Jorge Sampaoli. Under the guidance of the new man in charge, Argentinian Antonio Pizzi, La Roja will be hoping to make Santiago a fortress once again when they take on a perennially difficult Argentina side. Although Arturo Vidal will be missing, Chile will have the services of Alexis Sanchez, Marcelo Diaz and Gary Medel. For their part, Argentina settled into their campaign with a win away to Colombia last time out following a patchy start to the qualifiers. Coach Gerardo Martino will have Lionel Messi available for the first time during the competition, and will field his strongest line-up, including Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain, whose scoring form in Europe has caused a sensation. Furthermore, the game could provide Argentina with a measure of revenge after losing to Chile in the final of the 2015 Copa America.
Ecuador go into their tie with Paraguay looking to consolidate their achievements thus far. With four wins from as many matches, La Tri will be eager to make home advantage count in Quito to stay in pole position. In order to do so, coach Gustavo Quinteros will rely on key figures Antonio Valencia, Felipe Caicedo, Cristian Noboa and Enner Valencia. The visitors, for their part, can approach this fixture boosted by their triumph over Bolivia last time out. Coach Ramon Diaz, who raised a few eyebrows by calling up Juan Iturbe to the Albirroja squad, is aware of the difficulty he faces but is confident nonetheless: "Ecuador are top of the table and playing at home, but we have faith in our team. The players know how to deal with games like this."
Bolivia and Colombia will lock horns in a meeting that will be crucial to avoid losing further ground on the top teams. Bolivia are currently undergoing a significant upheaval and their young side will look to their home fortress in La Paz to earn a second victory in this qualifying campaign. Their opponents, Los Cafeteros, are going through a tough spell of their own and results have suffered as a consequence. However, they will rely on the talents of James Rodriguez and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, as well as the goalscoring ability of Carlos Bacca to secure a win that would keep their dream of reaching Russia 2018 alive.
Peru and Venezuela may be the bottom two teams in the table but their respective situations are rather different. The former boast players of the calibre of Claudio Pizarro, Jefferson Farfan and Paolo Guerrero, and have played with an attacking style since coach Ricardo Gareca's arrival, albeit without achieving the desired results. Meanwhile, La Vinotinto have lost all four of their fixtures and appear to have strayed from the path taken in previous qualifying campaigns. Coach Noel Sanvicente called up experienced duo Salomon Rondon and Oswaldo Vizcarrondo alongside a number of youngsters in an effort to turn the tide and get Venezuela back on track.
Player to watch
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
The five-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner will feature in this competition once again following his exceptional performances en route to Brazil 2014. Messi was injured during the first four qualifying matches this time around and Argentina felt his absence keenly, so much so that they lost at home to Ecuador for the first time ever and only earned five points from a possible 12. Now fit again and in spectacular form, the Argentinian star will be crucial to Tata Martino's side given the difficulties the Albiceleste had going forward in their previous encounters.
Did you know?
History is heavily on Argentina's side in light of their previous South American qualifiers away to Chile. The home team have only won one of the six matches played, a 1-0 triumph secured by Fabian Orellana on 15 October 2008, with Argentina having won four and drawn one. Chile have not lost at home for six matches in World Cup qualifying, their last reverse being a 2-1 defeat to the Albiceleste on 16 October 2012.
What they said
"We have to pick up points no matter what against Peru and Chile in order to regain the all-important confidence and get us out of this sporting crisis we're in."
Venezuela coach Noel Sanvicente
Matchday 5 fixtures:
24 and 25 March