Monday 28 March 2016, 11:17

Differing goals for South American hopefuls

Matchday 6 of the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ offers an opportunity for the leading teams to break away at the top of the table and for the rest of the contenders to close the gap on them. previews the latest round of games in the CONMEBOL Zone, as the race for the four direct places and the play-off berth against an Oceania representative hots up.

The big game *Ecuador-Colombia*

History, close proximity and footballing influences have made this fixture something of a South American clásico in recent years, and Tuesday’s meeting in the afternoon heat of Barranquilla promises to be a typically passionate contest, not least because the hosts have plenty of ground to make up on the group leaders.

Jose Pekerman’s side were all smiles again after their win in La Paz, though the fact that they still lie seventh in the table means they cannot afford to relax. Defender Cristian Zapata is poised to make his return for Los Cafeteros following suspension. The priority for Ecuador, meanwhile, is to collect at least a point, which would keep them out front on their own. To achieve that they need to regain the defensive solidity that has made them the only undefeated team in the regional qualifiers but which deserted them to some extent in last week’s 2-2 home draw with Paraguay.

Elsewhere The Paraguayans entertain Brazil at the Defensores del Chaco in Asuncion with both sides only too well aware that defeat could see them drop out of the top five. Los Guaraníes go into the game buoyed by their creditable draw at Ecuador’s Quito fortress, while the Brazilians, who rued their inability to hold on to a 2-0 lead against Uruguay, will be without the suspended Neymar and David Luiz. Naturalised Argentinian forward Juan Iturbe is in line to make his competitive international debut for La Albirroja.

Following an erratic start to the competition, Argentina have won two away games on the trot and are in fine fettle ahead of their home encounter with Bolivia, who lie one place off the bottom and need points fast to close up on the rest of the pack. Currently fifth in the table, La Albiceleste will be without their first-choice central-defensive pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori, both of whom are suspended, though Javier Mascherano returns to the side. La Verde are undecided as to whether to go with a four- or five-man defence, having earned draws on their last two competitive away games against the Argentinians.

Accustomed to making life hard for themselves in the last few qualifying competitions, Uruguay are only too happy to have eased into a deserved second place ahead of the visit of Peru, who are four points adrift of the play-off place. The return of full-back Maxi Pereira will lend experience to a rearguard that will once again be without the services of the injured Diego Godin, while the equally indispensable Jose Maria Gimenez has yet to recover from a recent knock and will also sit the game out. Peru coach Ricardo Gareca has plenty of suspension and injury problems of his own as he contemplates the make-up of his starting XI.

In the day’s other game, Chile travel to Venezuela heartened by the return of Arturo Vidal but hampered by injuries to several of their key midfielders and concerned by their relatively lowly sixth place, all of which is giving coach Juan Antonio Pizzi plenty to ponder. Propping up the table, La Vinotinto have lost their opening two home games but finally opened their account with a draw in Lima, having been just seconds away from a precious win. Noel Sanvicente has been attempting to inject some fresh blood in the side, but will have to make do without suspended striker Salomon Rondon on this occasion.

Player to watch *Luis Suarez (Uruguay) The Charrúa forward is set to play his first match in Montevideo since early June 2014, when Uruguay beat Slovenia in their final warm-up match for Brazil 2014. Suarez will do so having since become one of the world’s leading strikers, a status he consolidated by leading from the front in last Friday’s 2-2 draw in Brazil, a match that underlined the fighting qualities of La* Celeste.

Did you know? Nearly 31 years have gone by since Brazil’s last win in a World Cup qualifier in Paraguay, a 2-0 victory on 16 June 1985, when Walter Casagrande and Zico were on the scoresheet for the visitors. Of the three games since then, two ended in wins for Los Guaraníes and the other a draw.

What they said “Mascherano is a lot more help to us in the middle of the pitch. We’ve got glitter up front with Leo (Messi) and a big engine in midfield with Javi because he’s got so much lung power. We can rest easy with him there.” With both Argentina’s first-choice centre-halves suspended for the match with Bolivia, Albiceleste goalkeeper Sergio Romero gives his views on Javier Mascherano’s possible switch to the back-line.

Matchday 6 fixtures 29 March

Colombia-Ecuador Uruguay-Peru Venezuela-Chile Argentina-Bolivia Paraguay-Brazil