BUENOS AIRES (AP) — South American World Cup qualifiers resume on Thursday after a seven-month interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, though that doesn't mean the virus has waned in the region.
Top-of-the-table Brazil and second-place Argentina could take decisive steps in the next two rounds to assure somewhat calm pathways to Qatar, while Peru, which made it to Russia three years ago but now has one point after four matches, is already fighting to survive.
The latest rounds of South American World Cup qualifiers were in November. More games scheduled to be played in March were postponed when clubs of other confederations refused to allow their players to travel due to the pandemic.
The top four teams will automatically qualify. The fifth-place squad will go into an inter-continental playoff. The current standings show Brazil (12 points), Argentina (10), Ecuador (9) Paraguay and Uruguay (6) in those spots.
The two rounds will also be preparatory for this month’s Copa America, which will now be hosted by Brazil after Argentina was dropped because of the spread of COVID-19 in that country, even though analysts expect another wave of the virus to hit Brazil by late June.
BRAZIL vs ECUADOR
It will be the only match of the fifth round on Friday.
Brazil coach Tite said in a mid-May press conference that the halt in South American qualifiers will affect all South American teams, both in the short and long run.
“That is a reality we would rather not live. But we will have to be capable of moving other tools so we can keep our competitiveness high up,” he said before the clash with Ecuador's pragmatic team of Argentinian coach Gustavo Alfaro.
Tite initially brought veterans defenders Dani Alves and Thiago Silva for the qualifying matches but neither are expected to play due to injuries.
Brazil is also mired in doubt on who will be its target man, eyeing Copa America and beyond. Tite's options include Gabriel Jesus, who didn't score as a starting striker in the last World Cup, Roberto Firmino, whose is more of a creator than a scorer, and former Inter Milan flop Gabriel Barbosa, now a local hero at Flamengo.
ARGENTINA vs CHILE
After dropping out as host of Copa America due to the pandemic, Argentina will try to lift some spirits at home against Chile (4 points), now under Uruguayan coach Martín Lasarte.
Striker Sergio Agüero, newly signed to Barcelona, will be back to the squad after several absences due to injury. Coach Lionel Scaloni, though, has shown he prefers Lautaro Martínez up front with captain Lionel Messi.
Chile lost midfielder Arturo Vidal to COVID-19 only two days before the clash against its rival. The same reason forced Lasarte to leave defender Paulo Díaz out.
Ben Brereton, a 22-year-old striker, will be the new element in Chile's squad. His father is English and his mother is Chilean.
PERU vs COLOMBIA
Both teams made it to the World Cup in 2018 and both need to win to keep track of the leaders.
Colombia, with four points, will count on the return of coach Reinaldo Rueda after a disappointing spell at Chile. Rueda has had a lot to explain from the start after he left midfielder James Rodríguez out of his squad for alleged poor physical conditions.
James said in a statement he was disappointed with the coach.
Peru will once again count on veteran striker Paolo Guerrero, its top goal scorer in history, after he recovered from a knee injury.
The other matches of the fifth round of South American World Cup qualifiers are Bolivia against Venezuela and Uruguay against Paraguay. Bolivia has one point and Venezuela, three. Uruguay has six points, but trails Paraguay, also with six, on goal difference.
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Debora Rey, The Associated Press