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CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay face big tests

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By rounds five and six, at the end of March 2021, South America's World Cup qualifiers may not be taking place under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. For now, though, there is no getting away from the effects of the public health crisis.

There are still no fans in the stadiums; some players are unavailable after testing positive for the virus and others are absent through injury, which in some cases is surely a consequence of the frenetic post-shutdown fixture pile up. And for the same reason, others are nursing knocks and aches that may prevent them from showing their best form.

The conditions, then, are less than ideal. But September's opening two rounds of the marathon campaign were better than anyone could reasonably could have expected -- and have left plenty of anticipation for the third round, to be played on Thursday and Friday.

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A quick look at the match ups:

COLOMBIA vs. URUGUAY

The stand out tie of the round is the only fixture between two teams who made it to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Under the vastly experienced Carlos Queiroz, Colombia seem to have a well structured team. The double role of Juan Cuadrado is vital, dropping in central midfield when the team are defending but in attack ready to burst down the right wing, freeing James Rodriguez to wander inside. There seems to be no doubt that Atalanta's Duvan Zapata is now first choice centre-forward, making this month's absence of Radamel Falcao less significant.

Colombia have another powerful weapon -- the temperature of the city of Barranquilla, where they play their home games. The heat is overwhelming, accentuated by the handpicked kick off time of 3.30 p.m. local time on Friday afternoon.

Uruguay will struggle in these conditions and tread warily after their defence collapsed last month away to Ecuador. They are pleased to welcome back defender Jose Maria Gimenez -- even more than striker Edinson Cavani, who also returns. But they will rue the absence of Real Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde -- this is a match where they need to take the heat out of proceedings with controlled midfield possession. With Brazil coming up next Tuesday, Uruguay are running the risk of finding themselves in early trouble.

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ARGENTINA vs. PARAGUAY

Unlike the last campaign, there is no early trouble for Argentina this time. They got off to a 100% start last month, giving continuity to the positive impression they made towards the end of last year under rookie coach Lionel Scaloni.

The team has a defined structure, with Leandro Paredes anchoring a ball-playing midfield trio, and the work rate and attacking thrust of Lucas Ocampos serving both to give Lionel Messi a partner and to free him to set up the play.

The one cause for concern -- as it has been for some time -- is the lack of defensive pace, and it is here that Paraguay will surely look to strike, getting Miguel Almiron to run at the Argentina defensive line.

Without being entirely convincing last month, Paraguay already have four points on the board. Long term, it is not clear if Argentine coach Eduardo Berizzo is a good fit for the Paraguayans. A former assistant to Marcelo Bielsa, Berizzo favours a bold approach. But Paraguay are typically reactive, defending deep and lashing out -- and that could be their best plan on Thursday night in Buenos Aires.

BRAZIL vs. VENEZUELA

Brazil are the other team with a 100% record, and there was much for them to celebrate in the first two rounds. Last month they looked better than at any time since 2017. Douglas Luiz balanced out the midfield, allowing left-back Renan Lodi to charge forward, which in turn freed Neymar to cut in from the left flank. It looked like the most coherent response yet to defeat by Belgium in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals.

But coach Tite has problems putting together a team for Friday night. Neymar is out -- there are hopes that he may be fit to face Uruguay on Tuesday -- and Philippe Coutinho is also missing, along with Casemiro, the team's indispensable competitive leader, while even Douglas Luiz may not be fully fit.

Tite will trust that an improvised line up will be too good for Venezuela, where Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro is still finding his feet. Star midfielder Yangel Herrera is suspended, but centre-forward Salomon Rondon returns. Peseiro will hope that Rondon can operate on his own up front, with Venezuela's quick wingers getting up the field to give him support -- and then funnelling back to block space. Without a point or even a goal, Venezuela would be delighted to repeat the 0-0 draw they achieved away to Brazil in last year's Copa America.

CHILE vs. PERU

Losing a Pacific derby is always bad news, but the beaten side in Friday's duel will have extra reason for regret -- the qualification table will not make easy viewing. Both Chile and Peru managed just one point from the opening two games, though both played well enough to feel they deserve more.

The problem faced by Chile over the last few years has been the lack of renovation. There is a dearth of talent coming through to replace the generation which came through the 2007 Under-20 World Cup. The likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal remain the key performers, and much might depend on the level of their fitness.

With captain and centre-forward Paolo Guerrero a long term injury casualty, Peru have made an intriguing addition to their squad: the veteran Italian born-and-based striker Gianluca Lapadula. He has a Peruvian mother and, after being courted by the land of her birth four years ago, finally decided to jump aboard. Even with no fans in the stadium in Santiago, Lapadula's introduction to South American international football is likely to be intense.

BOLIVIA vs. ECUADOR

There may be space for one of these teams in Qatar 2022; there will not be space for both, which gives this opening game of the round a special appeal.

There had been positive noises coming out of the Bolivia camp before the campaign, but the team were nothing short of disastrous in the first two rounds. This match represents a fresh start and already, in only the third round, it is almost decisive. A team such as Bolivia, overwhelmingly dependent on home advantage, can only drop so many points in La Paz before their chances of qualification are compromised.

It is, then, their ill fortune that Thursday's visitors are Ecuador, the continent's other altitude specialists. Last month's 4-2 win over Uruguay ended a run of seven consecutive World Cup qualifying defeats and set off a surge of optimism. Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro is new, but may be a good fit for a team at its best on the counterattack. With experienced campaigners like striker Enner Valencia backed up by promising graduates of the successful 2019 Under-20 team, Ecuador will climb the mountain to La Paz with little fear of their new look opponents.