At the start of last month South America had only got through a third of its marathon 2022 World Cup qualification campaign. By the end of next week, two thirds will have been completed. The action is going ahead at breakneck pace, driven by the controversial triple headers -- three games per round instead of two -- and this time it's with the authorised participation of players from England's Premier League.
True, the clubs are grumbling about the third of the three matches, which will make it impossible for their highly paid stars to be back in time for league action on Saturday week. But the quarantine issue, which was such a vexing subject last month, seems to have been solved. On their return to England fully vaccinated players will be allowed out of quarantine to train and to play for their clubs.
Over the next few days, though, the focus is on what they do for their national teams. Round 10 of 18 takes place on Thursday and both Brazil and Argentina have a game in hand -- the consequence of last month's farce where their clash was halted early by Brazilian health officials. FIFA have yet to decide what to do with that game, but in terms of qualification it hardly matters: Brazil have a 100% record and 24 points, when 28 has always been enough for an automatic qualification slot. Argentina have 18, and plenty of time to pick up enough points to get them over the line.
Essentially the rest of the campaign for the big two is an extended dress rehearsal for the World Cup, a chance to look at options as they build a team for Qatar. Although they trail Brazil by six points, Argentina look further down the line in this task, with a set model of play and confidence boosted by the Copa America triumph on their rivals' turf in July.
Losing the Copa at home has put pressure on Brazil coach Tite, and even with his side winning all their qualifiers they have not reproduced the stylish swagger of his golden first 18 months in charge in 2016-17. Some in Brazilian football, like the legendary Romario, are openly arguing for Tite to be replaced, so there is no space to relax even though the team are so close to the finishing line.
From the point of view of the other countries, all of this is no more than the problems of the rich. Everyone else is scrambling around for points and this 10th round features two direct confrontations -- one higher up the table, the other a little lower down.
The former is the clash between Uruguay and Colombia, the match that kicks off Thursday's action. Uruguay are third; Colombia are two places behind, in the playoff position, trailing fourth-placed Ecuador on goal difference. There is history between the two: In the 2002, 2006 and 2010 campaigns they ended up disputing the playoff spot, which went to Uruguay on narrow margins. Both have made it through to the last two World Cups; both may well make it through again this time as they are unbeaten in five games (which, in the case of Colombia, is the entire reign of coach Reinaldo Rueda).
Back in 2019 when Oscar Washington Tabarez's Uruguay won 3-0 in Colombia their opponents were still under Carlos Queiroz. Rueda, a methodical manager, has steadied the ship. But in the prolonged absence of James Rodriguez, does he have enough genuine invention and quality? Can the gifted Juan Fernando Quintero fill the void? Is 35-year-old centre-forward Radamel Falcao back to his best? He has yet to start a game in this campaign but, with three goals in four games for new club Rayo Vallecano in LaLiga this season, might Montevideo be his moment?
Uruguay have the old firm of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani back in harness -- the last World Cup qualifier they played together was that 3-0 win over Colombia in 2019, when both were on target. Will Tabarez start them both? Or will he have a look at other systems, such as the 4-3-3 which he has used with some success while one or both of his strike pair have been missing?
Getting the balance right is vital for both teams and they have a tough few days ahead.
In the other two rounds, Uruguay travel to Argentina and then Brazil; Colombia host Brazil and Ecuador. This triple header could launch either Uruguay or Colombia to the brink of qualification, or send them back down into the dogfight.
Peru are in seventh place, five points off the pace; Chile are a point behind them. One of these countries might be able to make a dart and get into the qualification places, but it looks impossible for both of them to do it. It is a case of now or never.
Chile have gone six games without a win and their only triumph in the campaign so far was a 2-0 victory over Peru in Santiago. Both goals came from Arturo Vidal and, to add to Chile's woes, he sits out this match through suspension. There were some promising signs from Peru last month. Just as they did around the 2016 Copa Centenario, they will hope that some pleasing performances in the recent Copa America can kick start their campaign and send them through to a second consecutive World Cup, but there is a lot of ground to make up.
There will be even more if fourth-placed Ecuador can win at home to second-from-bottom Bolivia. This is a meeting of the altitude specialists. Indeed, Bolivia have left many of their giant 53-man squad in La Paz for the two home games coming up, where anything less than maximum points will surely end their hopes. With just one win in their last five matches, Ecuador have been dropping some valuable home points. For this game they have taken the unusual step of leaving their mountain fortress in Quito and instead are taking the Bolivians down to sea level at Guayaquil. There is plenty at stake. Anything less than a win will be a massive jolt to Ecuador's confidence and with two away games to follow they would run the risk of ending the triple header outside the qualification slots. But three points on Thursday should improve their position.
That is because Paraguay -- the first team outside the qualification slots -- are at home to in-form Argentina. The Paraguayans have been durable, losing just twice (only the unbeaten pair of Brazil and Argentina have done better), but they have only won two games -- both against Venezuela. It is hard to see where they can grab enough goals to haul themselves into consideration, though at least they can count on the return of Miguel Almiron, whose pace should worry the Argentina defence.
Venezuela, meanwhile, are still without Salomon Rondon for the visit of Brazil. So much of their attacking strategy depends on the Everton centre-forward, but for one reason or another he has missed almost all of this ill-fated campaign. Rondon has only been present for two games: a creditable 1-0 loss away to Brazil, and the 2-1 triumph over Chile, where he scored the winner. It is the only victory Venezuela have recorded so far, and it would be a major shock if the second was to come against the Brazilians.
But there is some cheer for the Venezuelans. Neymar is suspended and Casemiro has had to pull out with a fever. Brazil, then, are without the players that Tite dubs his technical leader and his competitive leader. Can Venezuela take advantage? Can the bottom side bring down the team at the top? Or will the Brazilian juggernaut roll on, effectively booking their place in Qatar after just nine games out of 18?