After the shenanigans of Sao Paulo on Sunday, it will be a relief when the spotlight returns to action on the pitch as South America’s World Cup qualification campaign reaches the halfway stage on Thursday. Brazil and Argentina will hope to get all the way to the final whistle this time, and both have games that would normally be seen as routine wins.
Argentina will have to do without their keeper and first-choice centre-back, Emiliano Martinez and Cristian Romero; both of whom have only been internationals since June, but it is already impossible to imagine a full-strength Argentina side without them. Also missing will be Giovani Lo Celso, whose partnership with Lionel Messi has been so important to the team’s fine recent form. But hosting Bolivia is usually seen as the home banker, and it will be a huge surprise if Argentina do not end up with the three points, especially as the return of fans in Buenos Aires should create a party atmosphere.
Brazil are also strong favourites to beat Peru on home turf and extend their 100% record. True, the Peruvians have done well from these FIFA dates, rallying after the Copa America as they did in 2016 and picking up four points from two home games, taking them off the bottom of the table and into the dogfight. They also may not be harmed by the suspension of captain and centre-forward Paolo Guerrero, who is still short of full fitness. His absence removes the temptation to overload the attack, allowing Peru to pack midfield and free the rapid Andre Carrillo and Gianluca Lapadula to launch the counterattack. Peru, though, will look upon anything they gain from the match as a bonus.
This is a fascinating encounter that promises to shed light on the credentials of both teams — if the weather holds up. There have even been cyclone warnings for Thursday night in Montevideo, and the game could take place amid fierce winds and driving rain. It will be a shame if the elements spoil the spectacle, because there is much to be learned.
Both sides have picked up four points from the previous two games, although Ecuador were at home, at the altitude of Quito, for their fixtures. Now they come down the mountain. Can they repeat their defensive solidity and keep another clean sheet, this time in much more difficult circumstances? Coach Gustavo Alfaro had this as a priority. In June and July his team were conceding too many goals, although they stood up well to good opposition. How well will they stand up to Uruguay?
And can Uruguay continue the pleasing form of the past few days even without the feared strike pair of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani? A recent run of disappointing results had pointed to the conclusion that the team’s 4-4-2, with both the veteran strikers, had become stale. Coming off 4-4-2 allows coach Oscar Washington Tabarez to pick wingers, such as Brian Rodriguez, and may well be better for playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta. Certainly in Sunday’s 4-2 win over Bolivia, the team looked much more fluid than they have done of late, but Ecuador should provide much stiffer opposition.
The fact that one — and maybe both — of Uruguay and Ecuador will drop some points is encouraging for the chasing pack.
Juan Cuadrado has been working overtime to paper over the cracks, but Colombia are simply not the same side without James Rodriguez, who appears to have disappeared into a footballing limbo at Everton. There could well be a place for the inventive Juan Quintero in the starting lineup.
And Chile are also struggling mightily for goals as they seek, with little success, to move beyond their golden generation. With Alexis Sanchez injured and Blackburn’s Ben Brereton not released, they are still looking for their first goal of this FIFA date, and Barranquilla is not the easiest place to find it.
Paraguay, without Miguel Almiron, have scored even fewer goals than Chile. And the only team with fewer still is Venezuela, once again without big Salomon Rondon. The teams meet in Asuncion with both desperate for their second victory of the campaign. It is a must-win for both.
A draw would be a huge disappointment for Paraguay, and would open up a worrying gap between them and the top five teams. And Venezuela need the three points to haul themselves into contention. They went into the campaign with such high hopes, but so much has gone wrong; key players have been injured and unavailable, the coach resigned because of unpaid wages and his caretaker replacement, Leonardo Gonzalez, has had to watch in horror as his team had a man sent off in the first half of both his matches in charge. Venezuela are better than the qualification table is making them look, but they have to start showing that now to have any chance of making it to Qatar.