MONTEVIDEO: Luis Suarez could yet line up against Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi on Thursday (Friday in Manila) as South America’s battle for 2018 World Cup places resumes with Argentina’s trip to Uruguay the pick of the fixtures.
With leaders Brazil already locking up their place at next year’s tournament, attention turns to the tussle for the three remaining automatic berths on offer in the marathon 10-team qualifying tournament.
Colombia are second in the standings on 24 points while Uruguay and Chile occupy the other two automatic spots on 23 points.
It means that fifth-placed Argentina have little margin for error as they head to Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario for the latest instalment of their historic rivalry with the Uruguayans.
Argentina have spluttered their way through the qualifiers so far, notching only six wins in 14 games, but have shown signs of life under new coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Sampaoli, who masterminded Chile’s victory at the 2015 Copa America, took control of the ‘Albiceleste’ in May, and began his reign with a morale-boosting 1-0 win over Brazil in a friendly in June.
A 6-0 romp over lowly Singapore provided a further clue that Sampaoli, who favours an aggressive, attacking style, may already have begun to have an influence.
Sampaoli served notice of his determination to invigorate Argentina’s ranks by axing striker Gonzalo Higuain in favour of Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi.
Icardi is expected to start at the apex of a front three with Messi and Juventus prodigy Paulo Dybala lurking just behind.
Argentina’s path to Russia has been complicated by the Court of Arbtitration for Sport ruling on Tuesday that confirmed a sanction against Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player in their September 2016 0-0 draw with Chile.
FIFA later converted that result to a 3-0 win for Chile, a ruling that means Sampaoli’s former team now have a one-point advantage over the fifth-placed Argentines.
“Now we have to play catch-up to get to the World Cup,” Sampaoli said Tuesday.
Uruguay meanwhile are sweating on the fitness of Barcelona star Suarez.
The 30-year-old talisman was initially ruled out of the fixture through injury but has travelled back to his homeland to train with the team.
Veteran coach Oscar Tabarez hinted Suarez may yet make a dramatic return on Thursday, declining to rule out the striker.
“He has shown signs of recovery that have rather surprised us,” Tabarez said.
If Suarez fails to win his fitness battle, Uruguay will once again turn to in-form Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani, who is the top scorer in the qualifying competition with nine goals.
“It is a very, very difficult match… We will see who has the most guts for it,” said Tabarez.
Elsewhere on Thursday, second-placed Colombia will aim to edge closer to qualification with an away victory over already-eliminated Venezuela.
Fourth-placed Chile meanwhile host Paraguay in Santiago as they aim to remain ahead of Argentina in the qualifying positions.
Brazil will have the luxury of being able to treat their game against Ecuador in Porto Alegre as a training exercise after securing qualification in their last outing, a 3-0 win over Paraguay in March —their eighth consecutive victory.
The game may see Brazil coach Tite select Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who has not played for the Premier League team this season amid a transfer saga involving Barcelona.