Tuesday 21 March 2017, 14:14

Russia 2018 hopefuls face turning point

“I don’t think the table will carry on being as tight as it has been up to now,” said Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza in a recent interview with FIFA.com, making an assessment that could very well prove to be correct. The upcoming double header in the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has the potential to split the table in two, leaving one group of teams well placed to advance and another out of the running with just four matchdays remaining.

Brazil and Uruguay occupy the top two spots, with the four teams behind them separated by just two points and Paraguay and Peru, respectively seventh and eighth, still harbouring hopes of qualifying. Matchday 13, which takes place on Thursday, promises to be a pivotal one.

The big match *Argentina-Chile* Estadio Monumental Antonio V. Liberti, Buenos Aires, 23 March, 20:30 (local time) It takes a big match to push a South American clásico like Uruguay versus Brazil out of the limelight, and Argentina’s home meeting with Chile certainly fits that bill. The rivalry between the two has reached a feverish peak following their two recent Copa America finals, both of which were won by La Roja. With La Albiceleste fifth and the Chileans just above them in fourth, Thursday’s encounter will be vital to both sides’ chances of making it to Russia.

Argentina have concerns over Paulo Dybala’s fitness, while Chile will be without the injured Marcelo Diaz and the suspended Arturo Vidal. The home side will need to watch their step in what promises to be a spicy affair, with 13 of their players a yellow card away from sitting out Matchday 14. La Albiceleste have the advantage in the head-to-head: Chile have never won a World Cup qualifier in Argentina, earning just two draws there in their history, in 1996 and 2003.

Elsewhere Uruguay will defend their impressive record in Montevideo against table-topping Brazil. La Celeste have won all their home matches to date, conceding just the one goal, and will be anxious to maintain that record and keep clear of the chasing pack behind them. The Brazilians have been in superlative form on the road since Tite took over as coach, however, winning all three of their away games in that time and without letting a single goal in. Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera will miss the game through suspension.

Third-placed Ecuador visit Paraguay, having lost their last seven world finals qualifiers in Asuncion. The home side will have to make do without the services of the injured Miguel Samudio and Nelson Haedo Valdez, while Renato Ibarra will be absent from the visitors’ line-up.

Colombia, who lie sixth, entertain ninth-placed Bolivia with one eye on their crucial trip to Ecuador on Tuesday 28 March, with eight of their players all on yellow cards, among them James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado.

Peru travel to rock-bottom Venezuela without the injured Luis Advincula. Ricardo Gareca’s men need to win if they are to keep their faint qualification hopes alive, something they have not done away to La Vinotinto since 1997.

Player to watch Claudio Bravo (Chile)

Though Bravo has lost his place at Manchester City and has played just three matches in February and March, he remains an “undisputed” first choice for Roja coach Juan Pizzi. When he steps out in Buenos Aires, the Chile skipper will win his 111th cap for his country.

Did you know? Bolivia have never scored in Colombia in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, losing on all five of their visits there and conceding 13 goals in the process.

What they said “There’s no match that motivates you more than this one, because of the quality of the opposition and because of the need to get something out of it. We’re going to really go for it, all within the Laws of the Game of course.” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez

Matchday 13 fixtures: 23 March

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