Too close to call in South America

  • Four matchdays left in South America World Cup qualifying

  • Seven nations vying for three automatic berths and one play-off spot to Russia 2018

  • Uruguay and Argentina meet in Montevideo

There are only four rounds of matches left in the world’s most competitive qualification tournament and, true to its reputation, there is still everything to play for. Behind runaway leaders Brazil, who booked their tickets back in March, seven teams are fighting for three automatic qualification places and one play-off spot for the right to play at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

Such is the level of competition that, regardless of how the results go, no team will have secured qualification by the time matchday 15 draws to a close. Two points separate second from fifth, with eighth place only four points further back. With 12 points still up for grabs, looks at the key battles as South America’s rivals renew acquaintances on Thursday.

The match Uruguay-Argentina, Montevideo Defeat in this latest instalment of South America’s oldest rivalry will not deal a definitive blow to the qualification hopes of either team. Nonetheless, both teams will be able looking to land a significant psychological victory. Having at one stage appeared to be coasting, Uruguay are now nervously looking over their shoulders in third place, on 18 points, following three successive defeats. Meanwhile Argentina, in fifth on 22 points, have had a qualification tournament to forget.

Hence the arrival of new coach Jorge Sampaoli who, deprived of the suspended Ever Banega, looks set to send La Albiceleste out for his first World Cup qualifier in an attack-minded 3-4-2-1 formation. For Uruguay, who are missing the injured attacking trio of Diego Rolan, Abel Hernandez and Jonathan Urretavizcaya, the fitness of Luis Suarez is more important than ever.

The other attractions Colombia, who sit in second place on 24 points, travel to San Cristobal to take on Venezuela, bottom with only 6 points. Los Cafeteros have not won in Venezuela since 1996, and they will have to make do without injured forward James Rodriguez and suspended defender Yerry Mina. With his team’s qualification hopes long since extinguished, in recent matches Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel has taken the opportunity to blood new talent. His team is set to feature several of the players who starred at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, where La Vinotinto reached the final.

In Santiago, hosts Chile, fourth on 23 points, welcome Paraguay, eighth with 18 points. The Paraguayans have not won in the Chilean capital since 2007, and La Roja have been further boosted by the return from injury of Gonzalo Jara, Nicolas Castillo, Jorge Valdivia and Esteban Paredes. However, 14 members of the Chile squad are just one yellow card away from picking up a suspension. Dario Veron and Bruno Valdez are out for the visitors, owing to injury and suspension respectively.

For Ecuador, sixth on 20 points, the trip to leaders Brazil could not have come at a worse time. La Tri find themselves outside the top five (and hence the play-off berth) for the first time since the qualification tournament began, although they at least have veteran full-back Walter Ayovi available again for the trip to Porto Alegre. The Brazilians, looking to preserve a record of never having lost at home to Ecuador, will be at full strength. Head coach Tite’s main dilemma will be to choose between Philippe Coutinho and Willian for a spot in his starting eleven.

Peru lay precariously in seventh place on 18 points. They know that only a win will do against Bolivia, in ninth on ten points, even though they will be without their talismanic striker Paolo Guerrero through suspension. Carlos Caceda is poised to make his World Cup qualification debut in goal, following an injury to first-choice stopper Pedro Gallese. Bolivia, for their part, have lost 84 per cent of their away matches in World Cup qualifiers.

Player to watch Repeatedly overlooked since playing a total of seven minutes in an Argentina shirt back in 2013, Mauro Icardi finally looks set to be given another chance. In the absence of Gonzalo Higuain, and with Sergio Aguero expected to be named among the substitutes, Icardi should partner Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala in attack. He and Dybala are currently level as the top marksmen in Italy this season, with four goals each.

Did you know? Jefferson Farfan is making his comeback for Peru following an 18-month absence. The last of La Foquita’s 69 caps came against Venezuela in March 2016. He has been out of favour with coach Ricardo Gareca ever since, but will once more don his country’s No10 shirt for the forthcoming qualification double-header.

What they said “We have to go looking for a positive result . We don’t have a choice. We’ve lost too much ground and now we have to pick up points away from home. There’s no margin for error.” Ecuador coach **Gustavo Quinteros**

Matchday 15 fixtures: *31 August* Venezuela-Colombia Chile-Paraguay Uruguay-Argentina Brazil-Ecuador Peru-Bolivia