It seems so strange to see how quickly the international break came back in only a month. Nevertheless, the toughest FIFA World Cup qualifiers are back in South America with some intriguing storylines heading into the third match day of the qualification process with rivalries, battle for bragging rights, and a whole lot of drama.
Ecuador vs. Uruguay: Battle for the top, for now: Thursday, 4:00 PM EST
Many expected that after the draw of the qualifying rounds in late July in Russia that Argentina and Brazil would be the match of the month, let alone match day because of what could have been a battle for the top spot in the table. However, in true South American fashion, the match of importance will be in Quito, not Buenos Aires, as Ecuador take on Uruguay.
A few returns and absences will be on display including an important one for los Celeste with the return of Edinson Cavani, who has had a rollercoaster ride so far for the French champions Paris Saint-Germain but in his return to the side for the first time after an abyssal Copa America in which he was sent off after an incident with Chile’s Gonzalo Jara, things have been changed for the striker as he hopes to help his side continue to an undefeated streak in the qualifiers following victory to Bolivia and Colombia last month. If Oscar Tabarez’s men will have to stop the Ecuadorian attack, they will have to rely on their two center backs in Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez.
As for the home team, they will be without one key player in the side that beat Argentina in Buenos Aires and against Bolivia in Quito last month and that is Antonio Valencia. Still, despite the influence the man has given to La Tricolor in the first two matches, Gustavo Quintero’s men will have to rely on key players such as Jefferson Montero and Felipe Caicedo. They went undefeated at home at the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa in the last qualification process to Brazil 2014; can it happen at Russia 2018?
Argentina vs. Brazil: Tango vs. Samba: Thursday, 7:00 PM EST
It’s quite amazing to see how these two traditional continent rivals have not faced each other in a competitive match since 2009, during the qualifiers for the World Cup in 2010. Nevertheless, the biggest international rivalry in the world is back in World Cup qualifying and for the first time in 10 years, it’s back at the Estadio Monumental de Nuñez, a stadium where Argentina has not lost to Brazil ever in these qualifiers.
In that match in 2009, Diego Maradona was the manager of the Albiceleste at the time and he took his out Buenos Aires to go north to Rosario in the idea that Estadio Gigante de Arroyito would be more intimidating than that of the River Plate’s home stadium and it didn’t work. Brazil got their first win in Argentine soil in World Cup qualifying with a 3-1 win.
Six years on, the rivalry is renewed once again but this time, it’s a bit less invigorating because of the lack of equal depth within both nations. That isn’t to say that the bitterness has been eased or anything like that, but you look at the sides that both teams will probably put on the pitch Thursday evening.
Dunga, who coincidentally was the manager for Brazil in the 2009 outing, is under pressure to get points at this stage despite only getting four points in the first two games, following a loss to Chile and win against Venezuela. The Seleção will have its inform and influential star Neymar back after serving his suspension from the Copa America that barred him from competitive international matches. He will join the likes of ideally the same squad that was put together last month, but have the absences of Marcelo and Marquinhos. It’ll be interesting what Dunga will put out that night regarding where the Barcelona winger, Douglas Costa and Willian will play.
For Argentina, they will be without five key players for the match against Brazil. Lionel Messi, who has been suffering an injury since September, Sergio Agüero, who suffered an injury inside a few minutes against Ecuador and the trio Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Garay and Pablo Zabaleta, who suffered injuries for their respective clubs as well as Javier Pastore, who is suffering from conjunctivitis.
Who’s going to step up as the striker for Gerardo Martino’s men? The in-form Gonzalo Higuain is back for the first time since the Copa America and will play in the middle alongside Angel Di Maria and possibly Ezequiel Lavezzi as the wingers. Ever Banega will most likely slot in for Pastore while Facundo Roncaglia and Ramiro Funes Mori will be Zabaleta and Garay’s replacement.
The pressure is on for the home side having on achieved one point following a loss to Ecuador at home for the first time in 22 years and a draw in Paraguay, the last World Cup and Copa America finalist are desperate for three points, especially against their samba rivals.
Chile vs. Colombia: James vs. Alexis: Thursday, 6:30 EST
It’s amazing what 12 months can do to you. This proves no surprise to the recently crowned South American champions Chile and the side who outside Argentina and Brazil were South America’s best team in the World Cup. Although in the tournament in Chile, Los Cafeteros were poor in the four games they played as James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado and others were not in the best form of the tournament.
Moving forward into this vital match in Santiago, the Real Madrid midfielder is back but will be without the Juventus midfielder and Chelsea striker in Cuadrado and Falcao who are suffering from suspension (red card vs. Uruguay) and injury. He’ll be a key player to watch alongside goalkeeper David Ospina and center back Jeison Murillo to keep the South American champions at bay.
Chile is in the best moment in their country’s sporting history. Currently undefeated since the maiden Copa America title with wins against Brazil and Peru respectively, players such as Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas, Jorge Valdivia, Claudio Bravo and many others will be looking to secure another three points at home against this slightly weakened Colombia side, but it’ll be a tough match especially with the necessity that Colombia must get points in Santiago.
Peru vs. Paraguay: Rematch: Friday, 9:15 PM EST
Out of Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador, only one other side is undefeated after two games and it’s Paraguay. Excluding the South American champions, La Albirroja and aforementioned Uruguay and Ecuador have gone the first two matches without conceding despite Paraguay only getting a 1-0 win at Venezuela and a stalemate at home against Argentina.
Ramon Diaz clearly been a fundamental person for this side for the vast improvement they are witness ever since he took charge of the side 11 months ago by reaching fourth place in the Copa America. Many fans are looking to forget the failure of reaching Brazil in 2014, when they went bottom of the table after making it to four consecutive World Cups and their first big challenge of the qualifiers will be a trip to Lima against a highly pressured Peru.
Ricardo Gareca’s side has failed to pick up any points from their matches against Colombia and bitter rivals Chile and many fans have been predicting that if the Argentine fails to pick up any points in this match or on Tuesday, then he should be sacked. Question marks will be going to the likes of Paolo Guerrero, Jefferson Farfan, Andre Carrillo and others and how tight it will be in the back with the likes of goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and center back paring Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Ascues.
For La Albirroja, players such as Nelson Haedo Valdez, Lucas Barrios and Derlis Gonzalez will be the key players for the side but question marks will go to the likes of either veteran Justo Villar or Antony Silva starting in goal and how much of the influence will be gone by injured Nestor Ortigoza and what his replacement, Argentine-Paraguayan Hernan Villalba of Newells Old Boys can achieve of that.
Bolivia vs. Venezuela: Teams looking for their first point: Thursday, 3:00 PM EST
Two teams who failed to get a single point in their first two games as well will battle it out at the Estadio Hernando Siles, in an altitude of 12,000 feet. Bolivia have had that big advantage when playing at home for many years but it failed to help them last month when they hosted a Cavani and Luis Suarez-less Uruguay in a 2-0 loss in La Paz, coming from goals by defenders.
It didn’t help them in the next match against Ecuador in Quito, so this game is vital for a Bolivian side that has the return of Martin Smedberg-Dalence in the midfield to become the main factor for victory. As for the Vinotinto, they will have to try to recover from their losses against Paraguay and Brazil respectively and have the best out of José Salomón Rondón in the air to try and get victory in La Paz.
It will truly be an amazing qualification process to look into as the battle for five spots into the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will be heating up as ever before.