As the South American World Cup qualifiers move towards the seventh and eighth round this week, we are approaching the midway point of the race to Brazil 2014. Just 16 games will decide the potential five teams that will join the hosts in the World Cup and with just nine points separating leaders Chile from bottom-placed Peru, it will be a fierce fight across the continent to take one of the spots guaranteeing a place in the next spectacular.
Argentina vs. Paraguay, Friday 20:00 local time (00:00 BST)
Alejandro Sabella’s charges recovered from a mixed start to the qualifying campaign to record successful wins over Colombia, putting them third in the standings with five matches played. The Guarani are traditional bogeymen for their neighbours, however, and despite the visitor’s poor form so far nothing will be taken for granted.
Argentina start as clear favourites with Youwin betting, but will be wary of the enforced absences of suspended pair Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero. For Paraguay, meanwhile, Buenos Aires native Jonny Fabbro will start against his own nation for the team currently ranked eighth in the Conmebol debut; and the Cerro Porteño star is keen to make a name for himself in his competitive debut for the Albirroja.
Colombia vs. Uruguay, Friday 15:30 local time (21:30 BST)
A game which truly brings together some of football’s most talented attacking phenomena. From RadamelFalcao, James Rodriguez and new Parma signing and revelation of the Copa Libertadores Dorlan Pabón on one side, to the holy trinity of the Celeste Diego Forlan, EdinsonCavani and Luis Suárez, Friday’s clash in the steamy climes of Barranquilla promises to be full of invention and excitement.
Jose Pekerman’s men have endured a tough start to their campaign. An impressive victory over Bolivia in La Paz was followed up by a home defeat at the hands of Argentina and a tepid surrender to Ecuador, meaning the nation currently sit out of the qualification zone in sixth. Uruguay, on the other hand, are the only team yet to taste defeat, but Barranquilla is rarely an easy place to visit and the tropical heat could well weigh hard on the legs of experienced stars like Diego Lugano and Diego Godín at the back.
Having suffered injuries to key players such as Claudio Pizarro, Jefferson Farfan and Juan Manuel Vargas over the course of the competition, Peru have slumped to four defeats in five with just victory over Paraguay a rare beam of light so far. The altitude of Lima, however, is never easy for visiting teams, and with the Venezuela clash the first of two consecutive home games the Inca will be hoping to pick up at least four points against the Vinotinto followed by Argentina.
Venezuela have a personal score of their own to settle against Sergio Markarian’s charges. Paolo Guerrero’s storming hat-trick sunk the side to win Perú third place in 2011’s Copa America, the last time the two met in a competitive fixture. An historic victory over Argentina has been the highlight of a solid start from South America’s traditional ‘cinderella’ nation, and lying in fifth with eight points so far local fans must be allowing themselves at least a slim hope of qualifying for the first World Cup in the country’s history.
Ecuador vs. Bolivia, Friday 16:00 local time (22:00 BST)
Having made just one appearance in a World Cup finals, back in 2002, and having recovered from a dire Copa America campaign 12 months ago, Ecuador have so far been one of the surprises of the Conmebol campaign. A 4-0 demolition against Argentina was no great surprise, but the Tricolor moved on to a battling victory over Colombia to sit pretty in fourth place. Three goals from America striker and former Birmingham man Christian Benitez have been key to their progression, and a win is a must against Bolivia to keep dreaming of Brazil.
Bolivia have historically been most effective in the dizzying heights of La Paz, where, indeed, their only win so far against Paraguay has occurred as they tread water near the foot of the table. A 1-1 draw away to Argentina constituted a great result last year, however, and with powerful forward Marcelo Moreno leading the line the Verde are capable of a few surprises still.
Buenos Aires-based Dan Edwards is a freelance journalist specialising in Argentinian football, you can follow him on Twitter here