Brazil and Uruguay each play away on Tuesday in a round of South American World Cup qualifiers that could see first place in the table change hands.
Leader Uruguay will travel to Barranquilla to face fourth-place Colombia while Brazil visits Merida to challenge bottom Venezuela. If Brazil wins and Uruguay fails to, the five-time world champions will go from sixth place to first in only four matches under new manager Adenor Bacchi, universally known as Tite.
Weeks ago, Brazil wasn’t even among the top four in South America’s standings, which award automatic places at the World Cup in Russia. Now Brazil has 18 points, one behind Uruguay.
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Although Venezuela has only two points in nine matches, Tite recognized it will be a key match for Brazil. That is because Barcelona star Neymar won’t be available for him for the first time due to a suspension. Under former coach Dunga, Brazil won 85 percent of the time with Neymar on the pitch and only 50 percent without him.
Tite said the match against Venezuela would be important to show that “the team has to be strong without Neymar and, when with him, become even stronger.”
Practice sessions in sunny Natal, in Brazil’s Northeast, showed Chelsea’s Willian in the starting lineup as a replacement for Neymar. Guangzhou Evergrande’s midfielder Paulinho also seemed set to claim back his position – he was suspended in the 5-0 thrashing of Bolivia on Thursday.
Uruguay, who beat Venezuela 3-0 in Montevideo in the previous round, will have a much trickier challenge against a rising Colombia team.
It will be the fifth time coach Oscar Tabarez’ Uruguay plays against Jose Pekerman’s Colombia. So far, each has won two.
Fifth-place Argentina has massive problems as it prepares to host sixth-place Paraguay on Tuesday: superstar Lionel Messi is still injured, its defense has been dismantled with the absence of three players and the team is getting farther and farther from the leaders.
With 16 points alongside Ecuador and Colombia, but behind on goal difference, Argentina holds its worst position in qualifiers since the current system was implemented for the 1998 World Cup in France.
Messi also missed successive 2-2 draws against Venezuela and Peru in the previous qualifiers. In its opening nine qualifiers, Argentina won the three in which Messi was involved and collected only seven points from the other six games.
“We can’t always depend on Messi, we have to do something to get ahead so his absence is not noted,” Juventus striker Paulo Dybala said.
Besides Messi, Argentina is without defenders Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori.
Paraguay, with 12 points, lost to Colombia at home 1-0 in the previous round and needs a win to keep alive its hopes of qualification for Russia.
Copa America winner Chile will play perhaps the most attractive match of the week in Santiago against Peru. Lagging in seventh place with 11 points, Chile risks not qualifying for the World Cup if it doesn’t beat its Andean rival. After losing 3-0 to Ecuador, Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is under heavy pressure. He blamed the altitude for the bad result in Quito and promised a different attitude before the home fans.
“It will be different on Tuesday,” Pizzi said. “Three months ago we won Copa America Centenario with those players and these tactics. Then we played three games and our line was always the same, except for the match against Ecuador. We will insist with things that gave us good results.”
Eighth-place Peru, with eight points, has limited hopes of qualification.
Elsewhere, ninth-place Bolivia hosts third-place Ecuador.