Finish line in sight for South American qualifying

Posted by Tim Vickery

South America's World Cup qualification campaign moves into the home straight on Friday with the 15th of its 18 rounds. The teams are clearly divided into three groups:

The Candidates

The top four automatic qualification slots are almost sown up. Argentina (26 points) are all but mathematically there - they sit out Friday's action, but should make sure of their place away to Paraguay next Tuesday. Colombia (23 points) are just a win away. Ecuador and Chile (both on 21) are closing in - something will have to go badly wrong for one of them to miss out.

The Strugglers

Uruguay and Venezuela (16 points) and Peru (14) are locked in an intense battle for the fifth position - the play-off slot. Whoever takes it will meet either Jordan or Uzbekistan in November.

The Desperados

Bolivia (10 points) and Paraguay (8) can only cling to the hopes of a miracle and build for the future.

These - in chronological order - are Friday's games.

COLOMBIA v ECUADOR

Last June the Ecuadorians won a 1-0 victory in their mountain fortress of Quito. Now Colombia hope that in the extreme heat of Barranquilla they can return the score-line with interest - which would all but mathematically ensure their first World Cup appearance since 1998.

Radamel Falcao Garcia is an injury doubt for Colombia - but coach Jose Pekerman is full of attacking options - Jackson Martinez, Teofilo Gutierrez, Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel give him plenty of centre forward alternatives.

This is Ecuador's first competitive game since the tragic death of Christian Benitez. The indications are that coach Reinaldo Rueda will replace him by pushing Antonio Valencia inside into a central position - where he might be able to take advantage of a gap that often opens up between Colombia's midfield and the centre backs, who like to drop deep to hide their lack of pace.

PARAGUAY v BOLIVIA

Building for the future, both sides had excellent results away from home in the August round of friendlies, Bolivia holding Venezuela to a 2-2 draw, and Paraguay coming back against Germany with a 3-3 result. There are some fresh faces in both squads; Paraguay have promoted their Under-20 coach Victor Genes, who has brought a few members of the World Youth Cup squad with him. Bolivia, too, are set to give competitive debuts to some of their youngsters who did well against Venezuela.

With home advantage Paraguay are strong favourites. In fact, three of their last four matches are in front of their own fans in Asuncion, meaning that in the unlikely event of all the teams above them slipping up, Paraguay might just think that a late charge for the play-off spot might be a possibility.

CHILE v VENEZUELA

Three consecutive wins under new coach Jorge Sampaoli have transformed Chile from crisis team to very strong contenders for a place in Brazil, and they looked irresistible in last month's demolition of Iraq. They look full of goals - in marked contrast to their opponents. Chile have scored 21 times in their qualification campaign. Venezuela have managed just 10.

There are times, though, when Chile's commitment to pushing forward can leave them very open to the opponent's counter-attack. Both full backs can be caught upfield simultaneously, which could leave space for the strong and dynamic Salomon Rondon to launch some dangerous thrusts.

PERU v URUGUAY

The last game of the night is the undoubted highlight of the round. Peru will climb above Uruguay with a win, and unless Venezuela beat Chile, will move into 5th place. The stakes, then, could hardly be higher. Peru are usually strong at home, and - a comparative rarity in this campaign - should have their full attacking force to unleash at the Uruguayans. Jefferson Farfan, Claudio Pizarro and Paolo Guerrero are all raring to go.

Uruguay, meanwhile, had a dismal 2012/13, especially away from home, where they suffered a sequence of heavy defeats. Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, after much tactical experimentation, hopes that he has found the formula - his side have reverted to defending deep, with the back line and the midfield close together, seeking to slip their strikers on the counter-attack. It worked in June when they won a vital 1-0 victory away to Venezuela. But it will not be as easy to contain the Peruvian strikers. A high octane 90 minutes are in prospect.

BRAZIL v AUSTRALIA

The World Cup hosts play a friendly on Saturday on the sub-standard pitch in Brasilia's new stadium. A few areas of the side will be under the microscope. Goalkeeper, for example. Julio Cesar has had a triumphant year with the national team, but he did not manage to secure a move in the transfer window, meaning that he is out of favour and out of the top flight of English football with Queens Park Rangers. Will he play? If not, can Jefferson of Botafogo be trusted as a potential World Cup goalkeeper?

At right back, the injury to Daniel Alves gives Maicon a chance. Is he really still good enough? And the injury to Fred at centre forward is another interesting one. Jo will presumably lead the line, though Alexandre Pato has been recalled. Are these players good enough to frighten defences in next year's World Cup?

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