Brazil and Argentina crossed the line long ago in South America's World Cup qualifiers, and have guaranteed their place in Qatar. Barring a mathematical mishap, Ecuador will also soon join them. It is certainly possible to imagine two sides managing to catch up with Ecuador's total of 25 points in the coming final two rounds. But at least one of those teams would also have to overhaul a goal difference of more than 10 goals in Ecuador's favour.
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Certainly Ecuador would seem to be behaving like a team that has already qualified. This Thursday they travel to face Paraguay. In next Tuesday's last round they are at home to Argentina -- but have chosen to play the match at Guayaquil, sea level, rather than at the altitude of their usual mountain fortress in Quito. The message coming out of Ecuador, then, is that rather than scrambling around for points to ensure their presence in Qatar, they are already preparing for the World Cup.
That leaves two slots available -- one automatic qualifying place, and the play-off position for the side finishing fifth, who will meet Asia's representative in June. With one hand on the calculator and the other on the phone number of the cardiologist, four nations are competing for these two slots -- in various degrees of desperation. The worst case is that of Colombia. They have not scored for an astonishing seven games -- an almost inconceivable succession of attacking failure from a team with plenty of talent.
That run should surely come to an end on Thursday at home to Bolivia. This match is usually the 'home banker.' Bolivia pick up almost all of their points at home at the extreme altitude of La Paz. They are notoriously weak on their travels. In this campaign they have managed two draws and six defeats in their away games, scoring just six goals and conceding 25. This, then, should be the moment when Colombia fill their boots. The problem is that it might well be too late. Colombia are overwhelming favourites to beat Bolivia, and will expect to win in Venezuela next Tuesday. But ending the campaign with two wins will still leave them depending on results elsewhere. A total of 23 points will probably not be good enough.
And what applies to Colombia also holds true for Chile. There is only one way that Chile can get above that mark of 23 points -- by doing something that no team has ever done before. Brazil, of course, have lost World Cup matches on home soil. As of last year they have lost a Copa America in Rio de Janeiro. But they have never been beaten as hosts in a World Cup qualifier, a record they intend to preserve on Thursday night in Rio. True, Brazil have a few absentees. But with the exception of left back Alex Sandro, they can field their first choice defensive unit which in recent times seldom even looks likely to concede a goal. Up front, Neymar will enjoy a respite from the pressures of Paris Saint-Germain, and there are plenty of players -- the recalled Richarlison, the debutant Gabriel Martinelli and so on -- whose participation in the World Cup is on the line.
The task in front of Chile, then, is immense. The stakes could hardly be higher. Thursday's game could effectively mark the end of the international aspirations of the great generation that came through the 2007 Under-20 process. Failure to make it to Qatar would be the last dance for the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel, Claudio Bravo and Mauricio Isla. And for Sanchez and Vidal a last minute problem has arisen. Their Internazionale teammates Lautaro Martinez of Argentina and Uruguay's Matias Vecino have been forced to sit out these matches after testing positive for the coronavirus. These will be nervous hours for two of the greatest players in Chile's history, and it will be sad indeed if a positive COVID-19 test robs them of a shot at glory in the Maracana stadium.
The undoubted tie of the round is the meeting in Montevideo of Uruguay and Peru, fourth place against fifth, direct competitors for that one remaining automatic slot. A run of four consecutive defeats left Uruguay fretting. But two victories achieved by new coach Diego Alonso have changed the panorama. If Chile fail to make history by winning in Brazil then Uruguay will qualify with a round to spare by beating Peru. And Uruguay are clear favourites. Alonso has steadied the ship by finding ways to protect centre-back Diego Godin, his veteran captain who is starting to creak. Barcelona's Ronald Araujo is a growing defensive force, who will probably be used at right back, with Jose Maria Gimenez providing extra pace as the left sided centre-back.
And further forward, in front of their own fans, Uruguay will unleash plenty of attacking power -- Luis Suarez could be paired with Edinson Cavani or Darwin Nunez, while Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur will keep the midfield ticking over, and Facundo Pellistri, a revelation in the last two rounds, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta will seek to provide the creativity.
With everyone fit, Uruguay are a team with the resources to be tough opponents in Qatar. First, of course, they must seal their place. A few years ago the result of this game would not have been in the slightest doubt. Peru would inevitably collapse. Before coach Ricardo Gareca took over, their away record was something from the chamber of horrors. In the 2010 and '14 campaigns they managed one draw and 16 defeats, scoring 11 and conceding 46. The pre-Gareca record this decade was two wins, 6 draws, 27 defeats, 22 scored, 78 conceded. There has been no great improvement in the quality of the players. But Gareca has forged them into a resilient collective, capable of grinding out results in difficult circumstances.
Their backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win away to Colombia in late January could end up being the most significant result of the entire campaign. Peru will have to dig even deeper to hold Uruguay at bay. But all is not lost, even if Thursday goes badly. Next Tuesday Peru host Paraguay -- and unless Chile have performed heroics against Brazil, a win in that game will be good enough for Peru to claim the play-off spot, just as they did on the road to Russia 2018.