Sunday 26 March 2017, 12:22

Precious points to play for in South America

Several countries are locked in a fascinatingly poised logjam on the road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ in South America. Only Brazil can breathe easy: A Seleção are running away with top spot on the strength of a stunning sequence of seven straight wins since Tite took the reins.

It is proving a bumpy ride behind the Brazilians. Every round of games is bringing swings so dramatic that, in the blink of an eye, countries can plunge from the comfort of the automatic qualification places to finding themselves on the outside peering in. previews Matchday 14, which could well yield another new-look top five before the action resumes again in August.

The big match *Ecuador-Colombia *Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa, Quito, 28 March, 16:00 (local time)

This high-stakes encounter, fittingly to be played in the altitude of Quito, is the epitome of a six-pointer. The hosts – currently occupying the play-off spot, with 20 points – will be gunning to leapfrog a team just a solitary point and place ahead of them, while the visitors will be out to put some daylight between themselves and their neighbours.

La Tri coach Gustavo Quinteros is missing the suspended Christian Noboa and Miller Bolanos, both regular names on his team sheet, and has drafted young forward Michael Estrada into the squad in response. For his part, Jose Pekerman, who is seeking to lead Colombia to a first victory in the Ecuadorian capital since 1996, is also without an attacker in the shape of Luis Muriel. He is hopeful of welcoming back another hotshot, Miguel Angel Borja, in the injured Sampdoria star's stead.

Elsewhere Over in Lima, Peru will enter the last-chance saloon when they play host to Uruguay, who are nervously looking over their shoulders again after being reeled in by the sides behind them. Los Incas, who lie eighth on 15 points, have only beaten La Celeste once in World Cup preliminaries so far this century, but will have to prevail this time round if they are to keep their hopes of qualification alive. That will be no mean feat against the Uruguayans, who remain second on 23 points and have two key figures available for selection again in Fernando Muslera and Luis Suarez.

Bolivia (ninth with seven points) are expected to recall several men who sat out the trip to Venezuela with an eye on the visit of Argentina (third on 22 points). Though in fine spirits after climbing back into the automatic qualification places, La Albiceleste will have to contend with the absence of a number of players through suspension and injury, chief among them Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain.

Chile (sixth on 20 points) are intent on bouncing back after dropping out of the qualification berths last time out. They will be confident of getting a much-needed victory at home to bottom-of-the-table Venezuela* (tenth with six points), especially with Arturo Vidal back in the fray. La Vinotinto*, meanwhile, are so far off the pace that they have already turned their attention to the future and will likely see this fixture as just another step in their rebuilding process.

First-placed Brazil (30 points) could book the first South American ticket to Russia 2018 if they extend their perfect record since September by overcoming Paraguay (seventh on 18 points) and both Ecuador and Chile lose. Los Guaraníes have to take at least a share of the spoils in order to stay within touching distance of the teams above them, but have never won away to A Verdeamarela in qualifying and have not claimed a point on Brazilian soil since 1985.

Player to watch Guido Pizarro (Argentina)

The 27-year-old is set to be thrown in at the deep end for his long-awaited international debut, earning his first cap in the always testing conditions up high in La Paz. Pizarro, a linchpin in midfield for Mexican outfit Tigres, will be determined to showcase his passing skills and seize his opportunity after having patiently watched on from the bench throughout Argentina's last five games.

Did you know? Peru have particular grounds to be wary of the threat posed by Luis Suarez. El Pistolero has put six goals past the Peruvians in the past, including braces in the 2011 Copa America semi-finals and in a crucial Brazil 2014 qualifier in Lima.

What they said "It's in our own hands. We've got some massive matches coming up and I believe we're going to make it to the World Cup. We've got a lot of faith. We expect to be firing on all cylinders on Tuesday and we'll try to play our game." Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal

Matchday 14 fixtures: *28 March*

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