South America set for Shakespearean final act
Six teams fighting for three direct qualifications slots and one play-off place
Second-placed Uruguay in the best position of all
Chile and Colombia in control of their own destiny
To depend on oneself or not to depend on oneself; that is the question facing the six sides still in contention as the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ reaches its conclusion on Tuesday. And that question could make all the difference between who makes the trip next year and who stays at home.
So close has the competition been that three of the four direct qualification places remain unclaimed, as does the play-off berth, the occupant of which will take on New Zealand over two legs.
And so tightly bunched are the six remaining contenders that it is well worth studying the standings ahead of the 18th and final matchday and making a note of each side’s goal difference, which could well be a decisive factor in determining who goes through to Russia 2018.
The big match *Peru-Colombia Estadio Nacional, Lima, 10 October, 18:30 (local time)*
*In a match that encapsulates all the rising tension of the last few matchdays, fourth-placed Colombia, who have 26 points to their name, travel to fifth-placed Peru, who lie a point behind them. A win will guarantee the visitors a ticket to Russia, while any other result will leave them sweating on events elsewhere. The omens are good for Los Cafeteros*, who have won their last four qualifying meetings with the Peruvians.
However, Colombian morale took a dent when they lost at home to Paraguay last week, while Peru are on the crest of a wave. A win for La Blanquirroja will guarantee them a play-off place, and should that result be accompanied by draws or defeats for Chile or Argentina, then they will go straight through. Peru also have a chance even if they draw or lose.
Colombia’s Cristian Zapata and Peru’s Jefferson Farfan will both miss the game through suspension.
Elsewhere As for the rest, no one has a clearer path to Russia than Uruguay, who lie second on 28 points. A win or a draw at home to the already-eliminated Bolivia will be enough for them. Even if they lose, it would take a heavy defeat and a highly unlikely combination of other results to stop them claiming a direct ticket, and even then they would still have the play-off place to fall back on. The record books point to one likely outcome: Uruguay have beaten the Bolivians in nine of their ten previous qualifying meetings in Montevideo.
Third on 26 points, Chile need to buck a losing trend away to the already-qualified Brazil, where they have lost five qualifying matches out of five. If they do manage to win on Brazilian soil for the first time, they will secure their place in Russia, regardless of other results. A draw or a defeat could also be enough for a top-four finish or a play-off place, though in that case they will have to depend on events going their way elsewhere. Arturo Vidal is out suspended for La Roja, while possible replacements Charles Aranguiz and Pablo Hernandez are both injury doubts.
Stuck down in sixth place on 25 points, Argentina take their agonising campaign to Quito, where they have not beaten the recently-eliminated Ecuador in the qualifiers since 2001, with two defeats and a draw coming their way since then. A win will guarantee them a play-off berth and possibly a direct place, depending on how Peru and Chile fare. Despite their precarious position, a draw may even be enough for them to sneak into fifth or the top four. In the event of defeat, however, only an improbable series of results would see them into the play-off. Their only absentee is the injured Fernando Gago.
Lying a place and a point behind Argentina, Paraguay play host to Venezuela knowing that they will, in all likelihood, have to win to go through. Even then, three points may only be good enough for fifth place. A draw would only be good enough for fifth if accompanied by heavy defeats for Peru and Argentina, and a defeat would leave them with no chance at all. La Albirroja will be without the suspended Richard Ortiz.
Player to watch *Lionel Messi (Argentina) The very real possibility that Argentina will miss the next World Cup means there will be even more pressure on Messi than usual. The Albiceleste* captain is his side’s leading scorer in the campaign with four goals, though he has failed to find the back of the net since the win over Chile on Matchday 13. Can he work his magic for his country one more time?
Did you know? Colombia have not lost a qualifying match in Peru since 1981, when La Blanquirroja won 2-0 in the preliminaries for Spain 1982, their last appearance at the world finals. Los Cafeteros have since recorded four wins and three draws on Peruvian soil.
What they said “We’re not worried about the other games. All we’re thinking about is picking up points in Brazil.” Chile goalkeeper and captain Claudio Bravo.
Matchday 18 fixtures *10 October*
Ecuador-Argentina Uruguay-Bolivia Paraguay-Venezuela Peru-Colombia Brazil-Chile