Potentially crucial for both teams’ hopes of reaching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the South American Zone qualifier between Uruguay and Paraguay on 22 March is far from just another game. Even more so for the latter’s Uruguayan boss Gerardo Pelusso, who will be trying to lead the visiting La Albirroja to victory in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, a stadium he once graced as a player.
“There’s far too much riding on this game for me to be wondering what’s going to happen when I come out of the tunnel or when the national anthems are played,” said Pelusso, who hails from Florida, some 56 miles from the Uruguayan capital.
Yet the Paraguay supremo, who has always dreamed of taking charge of La Celeste, got a taste of what is to come when he took a family holiday in January in the resort of Punta del Este in south-east Uruguay.
“Absolutely everybody, whether on the beach or on the street, was asking me what’s going to happen on 22 March,” said Pelusso. “And I said the same thing to all of them, ‘It’s no big deal, we’re coming to try and win and that’s that’.
"There was one guy who didn’t like that answer and we almost ended up scuffling in the middle of the street. But I don’t know what he expected me to say: I’m the Paraguay coach! It’s a sporting occasion, not a war. And I have to say that Uruguay and Paraguay have a lot in common, especially in how friendly and polite their people are, except for that one guy!”
To the surprise of many observers, Los Guaraníes find themselves bottom of the nine-team South American Zone standings. With just seven points from nine games thus far, they are five points adrift of the trio of Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile, who currently occupy the group’s third and fourth direct qualifying berths and the Intercontinental Play-off spot respectively.
Nor are Oscar Tabarez’s Celeste enjoying a smooth ride of things. Following a promising start, they have been handed emphatic defeats in three of their last four qualifiers. “Of course I’m surprised to see how Uruguay’s form has dipped,” admitted Pelusso. “Particularly the number of goals they’ve conceded, because they’ve got an excellent coach and some of the best players around at the moment. But I don’t think it’s the end of an era for them, far from it.
“It it was down to me, I’d have preferred to play them in November when they were in freefall and we’d just beaten Peru [on 16 October],” continued Pelusso. “It’s like when boxers are having a tough time of it, they can be saved by the bell. Uruguay have had time to recover now.”
However, the statistics are not all in Uruguay’s favour, as they have won three and lost two of their previous FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay in Montevideo, and La Celeste have never beaten their rivals in Asuncion.
“It’ll be a very tough game for both teams," said Pelusso. "The Centenario is a tricky place to visit, but historically speaking Paraguay have never made it easy for Uruguay. We really need the three points.”
Things have certainly begun looking up for Los Guaraníes in recent months, with Pelusso’s decision to bring in a crop of domestic-based players – most of whom range between 22 and 26 – generating a positive change in the squad’s dynamic and style of play.
“I’ve noticed a significant improvement, but that doesn’t take away from the fact our qualifying situation is critical,” said the coach, whose team have won their last three games, against Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador, though the last two were friendlies.
“It’ll be our next two matches that decide if we’ve still got a chance of making it to Brazil or not,” added the 59-year-old strategist. And coming up on the heels of the visit to Uruguay is a daunting trip to Quito to face an Ecuador side that have a 100-per-cent home record in Brazil 2014 qualifying.
“I lived in Ecuador for seven years and I had to travel to altitude every two or three weeks,” explained Pelusso. “We’ll prepare for the trip thoroughly so it affects us as little as possible, but I always say the same thing: I don’t know of any player who’s died through running around at altitude. It may be a bit harder to recover, but it's not something to be scared of.”
No detail has been left to chance, with the coach aiming to touch down in Quito just the day before the game. The supremo has also discussed the issue with his Mexico-based contingent, which includes Pachuca’s Paulo Da Silva and Toluca’s Edgar Benitez, amongst others, who regularly have to play at altitude.
“We’re in good shape, while there’ll be Ecuadorian players that aren’t used to the altitude either, because they grew up in lowland areas [of Ecuador] and now play abroad. They’ll be feeling it too,” explained Pelusso, before dismissing the idea of sending out totally different line-ups for the matches in Montevideo and Quito. “Every coach aims to have a settled core in his side, and we’re on our way towards that.
“We might make the odd change, since they’ll be two huge ‘finals’ in the space of four days, but I won’t pick totally different sides,” continued the Paraguay boss, as the conversation concluded. “Are we still in with a shout of making it to Brazil? Of course we are, and this double-header will be decisive.
"But everyone should know that, as long as we’ve still got a mathematical chance and until the ref blows his whistle for the last time, we’ll give absolutely everything we’ve got to make it happen.”