There are just two matchdays remaining in the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and still much to be decided. While Brazil booked their place at next year’s world finals three matches ago, the three remaining qualification places and the play-off berth – the occupant of which will face New Zealand – have yet to be filled.
A mere seven points separate Uruguay in second and Ecuador in eighth. Indeed, so tightly bunched are the contenders that only two sides can go through on Thursday (Uruguay and Colombia) and only two can be knocked out (Paraguay and Ecuador).
FIFA.com looks ahead to the penultimate round of games in the CONMEBOL preliminaries, which could well leave everything to be decided in next week’s final five fixtures.
*The big match *Argentina-Peru
Estadio La Bombonera, Buenos Aires, 5 October, 20:30 (local time)
Following a 20-year absence, the qualifiers return to Boca Juniors’ home ground for the latest instalment in a long-running rivalry. The slightest error could see either side all but drop out of contention. Fourth on 24 points, Peru are on a high after winning their last three games, though they will have to make do without four regular first-teamers: Christian Ramos, Andre Carrillo, Christian Cueva and Paolo Hurtado.
In contrast, Lionel Messi’s Argentina, who are tied on points with the Peruvians but lie one place below them, could not be more on edge. La Albiceleste need to win to avoid having to depend on results elsewhere on the final day. They will attempt to do so without the injured Sergio Aguero and in the worrying knowledge that their only failure to reach the World Cup – in the qualifiers for Mexico 1970 – came as a result of a 2-2 draw against the same opposition at the same stadium.
*Elsewhere *Uruguay visit the already-eliminated and bottom-placed Venezuela with sights set on claiming the one win they need to qualify for Russia 2018. A draw may even be good enough, depending on other results. La Celeste have not lost on Vinotinto soil since 2001 and will be lining up with all their artillery. The revamped hosts will be no pushover, however, having drawn at home to Colombia and away to Argentina in their last two games.
Third on 26 points, Colombia host seventh-placed Paraguay, who lie five points behind them, in Barranquilla. A win for Los Cafeteros will give them a strong chance of qualifying on the day, while a draw will leaving them waiting for the final round of games. Juan Cuadrado is their only injury doubt against a Guaraní side that has no option but to win. The visitors can take heart from the history books, having won on two of their last four visits to Colombia.
Chile (sixth on 23 points) and Ecuador (eighth on 20) begin the day outside the qualification places. The FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 runners-up are in vital need of a good result ahead of their daunting trip to Brazil on the final day. Coach Juan Pizzi surprised everyone by deciding to leave experienced midfielder Marcelo Diaz out of his squad, while La Tri are hoping their new Argentina coach Jorge Celico can engineer a miracle.
In the only match with nothing riding on it, ninth-placed Bolivia, who are out of the running, take on group winners Brazil, who are aiming to win a qualifying match in La Paz for the first time since 1985. Coach Tite has once again called on the players who have made his reign such a resounding success so far, while the injured Pablo Escobar will be an absentee for the hosts.
Player to watch *Paolo Guerrero (Peru)
*Now 33, Peru’s leading all-time goalscorer is facing the biggest challenge of his career: to lead the country back to the World Cup for the first time since 1982. The scorer of five goals so far in these qualifiers, Guerrero is going to every length to make that happen, having asked his club, Flamengo, to release him from their last match so he could travel to Buenos Aires to prepare for the showdown with Argentina.
*Did you know? *Uruguay have the chance to advance directly to the world finals for the first time since the current competition format was adopted in the preliminaries for France 1998. In the four consecutive play-offs the Uruguayans have contested since then, they beat Australia, Costa Rica and Jordan in the Korea/Japan 2002, South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 qualifiers respectively, but missed out on a place at Germany 2006 after losing on penalties to Australia.
What they said *“The fans want the match to be settled really quickly and they want us to get goals. We need to be patient, though. It’s 90 minutes and I hope the fans are aware of that.”
*Colombia forward Radamel Falcao.
Matchday 17 fixtures *5 October