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Uruguay, Brazil look to solidify World Cup places in wide-open CONMEBOL  March 18, 2017 – 02:45 pm

There is a striking coincidence in the fixture list as South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign reaches the halfway stage Thursday. In the ninth round, the top half of the table take on the bottom half. The first five are up against the last five.

The highly competitive nature of the campaign is evidenced by the clash between the team at the top of the table (Uruguay, with 16 points) and the team at the bottom (Venezuela, with two). It has been only four months since these teams met in Philadelphia in the Copa America Centenario. On that occasion, Venezuela won by scoring the only goal of the match and thus ensured their place in the quarterfinals and condemned Uruguay to early elimination.

The circumstances are different this time. Back in June, Uruguay had come all the way across the country from meeting Mexico in Glendale, California, to face the Venezuelans and were grumbling about their travel arrangements. This time, they are at home in a Centenario that should be much more to their liking: Montevideo's legendary Centenario stadium, built for the 1930 World Cup. Also, they have Luis Suarez fit and raring to go. Playing against opponents who are realistically already thinking about the 2022 World Cup, Uruguay are strong favourites, though perhaps not as strong as second-place Brazil, who host eighth-place Bolivia in the northeastern city of Natal.

Brazil have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home. Bolivia have not won an away qualifier for 23 years. As such, it would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of South American football if Brazil do not prevail, especially given the feel-good factor surrounding the recent appointment of coach Tite, by far the most qualified man for the job.

However, Bolivia have a feel-good factor of their own, with an interesting and popular new coach in Angel Guillermo Hoyos. They picked up four points in last month's two rounds - only Brazil did better - though those points are in jeopardy, as opponents Peru and Chile claim that Bolivia's centre-back, Nelson Cabrera, a naturalised Paraguayan who came on as a late substitute in both games, was ineligible. He received Bolivian citizenship after three years, but FIFA rules stipulate that a naturalised player should have lived in his adopted country for five years. Cabrera has not been included in the current squad.

Thiago Silva, who was out of favour with previous Brazil coach Dunga, is back in Tite's squad.

Hoyos, then, will have to defend without Cabrera. Bolivia's new boss is talking of taking the game to Brazil, marking them high, keeping the ball and coming away with three points. But Brazil are overwhelming favourites, and a victory for them and for Uruguay would widen the gap between the top and the bottom of the table.

On the other hand, those gaps could close if ninth-placed Peru can beat Argentina in Lima. This is a great opportunity for the Peruvians to build on last month's win over Ecuador. Lionel Messi is missing once more. Argentina have won all three games he has played but have only one victory in the five games he has missed. Last month, Argentina's defensive unit was creaking badly in a 2-2 draw away to Venezuela. Can Peru take advantage with combative centre forward Paolo Guerrero backed up by bright young Christian Cueva, Cristian Benavente and Raul Ruidiaz?

Even without Messi, Argentina are loaded with attacking talent. Centre forward Gonzalo Higuain is set to be backed up by Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. There is a risk, though, that the 4-2-3-1 formation might leave the team disjointed, especially if Peru can press with sufficient intensity to make it hard for Argentina to build from the back.

There should also be real drama in the other two matches, crunch ties in the middle of the table. Ecuador, in fifth and falling quickly, are at home against Chile, the reigning continental champions who have dropped to seventh. Though traditionally strong at the altitude of Quito, recent form is making Ecuador question whether the venue is still an advantage. So many of their players are now based abroad that they too struggle to acclimate. Only two points separate these two sides, and only one separates fourth-place Colombia from Paraguay, in sixth.

The latest time out, Paraguay took a 4-0 mauling away to Uruguay, but they are usually strong in Asuncion, where they are unbeaten in this campaign, despite having already hosted Argentina and Brazil. Colombia might well be without James Rodriguez, who is nursing an injury, and could choose to clog up the midfield and hit quickly on the break. This match might not be much of a spectacle for the purists, but it should be hard-fought, and the outcome could prove to have considerable bearing on who makes it to Russia.


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