With three rounds to go, South America’s World Cup qualification table can be divided into four groups.
The first is made up of just one team. Brazil are in a class of their own, already qualified and so far ahead of the pack that they are guaranteed to finish in first position. At the other end of the table there is another group, made up of Bolivia and Venezuela, well out of the running and already thinking of 2022.
The other two groups are in between. First, there are the teams who currently find themselves in the qualification positions; Colombia, Uruguay, Chile and, in the playoff spot, Argentina. Extraordinarily, the remaining three rounds do not feature a single game between these four sides.
Instead, the action is between them and the group just behind them, made up of Peru, Paraguay and Ecuador. Just five points separate Colombia, in second, from Ecuador in eighth. It is all very tight, and there are lots of clashes coming up between the sides on either side of the narrow line. Before the end of the competition next month, all four of the teams in the qualifying slots face at least one, and in some cases, two meetings with the teams just below them. This, then, is where the race to Russia will be won and lost.
There are two such match ups in Tuesday’s 16th round. In Quito, Ecuador take on Peru. Early leaders Ecuador have sunk badly — after winning their first four matches, the subsequent 11 have brought just two more triumphs. This is a must win game for Ecuador — and perhaps also for Peru, who face a trip to Argentina and a tricky home match against Colombia in next month’s final pair of matches.
The Peruvians were boosted by the award of three points from a game they lost. Bolivia fielded an ineligible player, and so at the stroke of a pen a 2-0 defeat became a 3-0 victory. But, with a run of three wins and a draw in their last five games, they have found form at the right time — just as Ecuador have lost it.
Something similar is also happening further south, where Paraguay host Uruguay. The Uruguayans look bereft of all confidence, only rarely crossing the halfway line in Thursday’s goalless draw at home to Argentina. Uruguay’s lack of ambition can be gauged by the performance of substitute midfielder Matias Corujo, who came on for the last 25 minutes and did not touch the ball on a single occasion. He was more concerned with marking, harrying and protecting a defensive unit which has been leaking goals alarmingly. At least the clean sheet brought an end to a run of three consecutive defeats, with nine goals conceded in qualification matches, and 5 consecutive defeats with 15 goals conceded including friendlies.
Paraguay, meanwhile, have their morale boosted after Thursday’s 3-0 win away to Chile. Coach Francisco Arce got the balance of his side right. In his previous spell in charge of the national team he tried to renew the side too quickly. The secret of the win over Chile was the blend of defensive experience — the veteran Paulo da Silva organising the back line, well protected by experienced midfielders Victor Caceres and Cristian Riveros — and the youthful pace of Oscar Romero and Miguel Almiron on the counter attack.
It is a blend that proved perfect for an away game, where Chile would inevitably seek to take the initiative. It may be less appropriate for a clash at home against the cautious Uruguayans, who would probably be happy with another draw. This, then, is unlikely to be a match for the purists. The pressures at the end of the campaign, and the limitations of the teams involved, mean that sweat and sacrifice are more highly valued than inspiration in the fight for enough points to creep over the finish line.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.