With seven matchdays remaining in the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Brazil and Uruguay have opened up a slim gap over the rest of the field and can breathe more easily as they survey the rest of the campaign. The outcome of the battle for the other two direct qualification places and the play-off slot is considerably less clear, however.
The six teams below the two leaders are separated by a mere four points, with Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and a rejuvenated Peru all jostling for the opportunity to reach Russia and embrace Official Mascot Zabivaka™. Every remaining game is potentially decisive, not least Tuesday’s five encounters. FIFA.com looks ahead to Matchday 12.
The big match
Estadio del Bicentenario, San Juan, 15 November, 20:30 (local time)*
There have not been many occasions in the last 25 years in which Argentina have found themselves in such a difficult position in the closing stages of a World Cup qualifying competition. The 5-0 home defeat to Colombia in 1993 left La Albiceleste on the ropes, and they were fighting for survival again in the final two matches of the South Africa 2010 preliminaries. Currently outside the qualification places in sixth, Argentina and their world-famous stars are struggling for form and results. Having seen his side collect only two points in the last four games, coach Edgardo Bauza is set to make several changes in a bid to turn their flagging fortunes around.
With Colombia one of Argentina’s direct rivals, this game is a “six-pointer”. Lying third, just two points ahead of La Albiceleste, Jose Pekerman’s side have had some decent results away from home so far, winning two, drawing one and losing only to top two Brazil and Uruguay. The fact is, however, that they have now gone 23 years without a win in Argentina and 19 without scoring. Yerry Mina and Oscar Murillo are both suspended, which leaves Pekerman looking for a new central-defensive pairing, though the return of the indispensable Juan Cuadrado is a boon for the visitors.
Fifth-placed Chile and second-placed Uruguay will meet in Santiago in the latest instalment of a fixture that has always had an edge to it, but which has taken on a new dimension since the quarter-finals of the 2015 Copa America. La Roja picked up a valuable point in Barranquilla last Thursday and will welcome back Gary Medel following his four-match suspension. On the downside, Charles Aranguiz is suspended and Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo are both injury doubts. La Celeste, who have a fitness concern of their own in Edinson Cavani, have the luxury of knowing that they will remain second whatever the result in the Chilean capital.
Fresh from thumping Paraguay in Asuncion, a revitalised Peru now entertain high-flying Brazil, who head the table thanks to their five-match winning streak. Ricardo Gareca’s side need a win to continue their qualification charge, and he believes they can get it, telling his players: “Peru can beat anyone.” Absent from the home side’s line-up will be the suspended Renato Tapia and Miguel Trauco, and the injured Edison Flores, while Brazil coach Tite has already decided on his one enforced change, with Filipe Luis coming in for Marcelo.
Ecuador lie fourth on goal difference from Chile and will seek to protect that precarious position at their Estadio Atahualpa stronghold in Quito, where they take on a Venezuela side that climbed off the bottom of the table thanks to their 5-0 win over Bolivia last week. Though La Tri *will once again have to make do without the injured Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, the quartet of Arturo Mina, Luis Caicedo, Christian Ramirez and Enner Valencia are all available for selection once more following suspension. For his part, *Vinotinto boss Rafael Dudamel may well decide to keep faith with the new faces that ended a six-game winless run with that heavy defeat of Bolivia.
Having dropped down to seventh, Paraguay will hardly be relishing the ever-awkward trip to La Paz to face bottom-placed Bolivia. In response to the defeat to Peru, which has checked their climb up the table, coach Chiqui Arce has announced no fewer than eight changes to his starting line-up, though three have been forced on him: Rodrigo Rojas and Cristian Riveros are both suspended, and Federico Santander is out injured. La Verde, who have not lost at home to Los Guaraníes since 1973, will bid a fond farewell to Walter Flores, who is making his last international appearance at the age of 38, having made his debut in 2006.
Player to watch
Gabriel Mercado (Argentina)
“Argentina have got a bigger problem [than their lack of goals], and that’s the fact that we’ve conceded eight [in four matches],” said Bauza following the 3-0 defeat to Brazil. In seeking to address that issue, the Albiceleste coach will hand Gabriel Mercado a start at right-back against Colombia. Mercado is no stranger to the national team, having been given an extended run in the side under Gerardo Martino, alongside Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori. The scorer of two goals in the preliminaries, Mercado lost his place to Pablo Zabaleta when Bauza took over, but was recalled for the Paraguay match following the Manchester City man’s suspension. His return for the Colombia match is a tactical decision on Bauza’s part, however.
Did you know?
Peru have never beaten Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match, losing six and drawing four of the ten meetings between the two sides in the preliminaries since 1957. **
Matchday 12 fixtures: