Ecuador, Uruguay aiming to lock in World Cup spots this week

SAO PAULO (AP) — South America’s quota of four direct spots for the World Cup in Qatar could be filled with a round of qualifying to spare, with Ecuador and Uruguay aiming to secure spots behind Brazil and Argentina this week.

The fifth-place team in South America will play an intercontinental playoff against the fifth-place team from Asia in June for another spot in Qatar, so the competition is still intense.

Peru, Chile and Colombia are seeking to remain in contention for the fourth or the fifth positions in qualifying right until the last round. Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela are already out.

The most anticipated match on Thursday will be at the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo, where Uruguay (22 points) and Peru (21) will face off. Chile’s hopes (19) depend on getting points against first-place Brazil (39) in Rio de Janeiro.

Third place Ecuador (25) can secure its spot in Qatar with a combination of different results. A win at Paraguay (13) is enough for Gustavo Alfaro’s team. A draw could also work, as long as Peru doesn’t beat Uruguay. A loss could also suffice if the Peru loses in Montevideo.

Colombia (17) will host Bolivia (15) and needs an extremely unlikely combination of results to qualify.

Friday’s only South American qualifying match features Argentina as Venezuela’s hosts. The last round of qualifying will be staged next Tuesday.

The final rounds of qualifying are also a relief for South American teams, which have faced serious headwinds since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only because of their high toll of the virus in their countries but also with health protocols required to bring Europe-based players in for matches.

URUGUAY vs. PERU

Uruguay was at serious risk of not qualifying for the 2022 World Cup after four consecutive defeats under veteran coach Oscar Tabárez. The outlook has improved in the two matches since Diego Alonso took over. Now the Uruguayans can reach the World Cup with a victory against a direct rival for the spot, as long as Chile doesn’t win at Brazil.

“We will play this match as if it were a final,” Alonso told a news conference.

Peru can achieve at least the fifth position with a win at Uruguay — as long as Chile doesn’t beat Brazil at Maracanã Stadium. Avoiding defeat in Montevideo could also be enough to get close to Qatar, since next week’s round will feature Chile vs. Uruguay and Peru hosting Paraguay.

“To reach the final round depending only on ourselves is what we had expected all along,” said Ricardo Gareca, who took Peru to a World Cup for the first time in 36 years in the latest edition. “We have to have a lot of narrative, conviction, mentality to depend only on ourselves in the two final rounds.”

BRAZIL vs. CHILE

For Chile, a loss to Brazil would mean the end of its World Cup hopes for 2022. Chile has never beaten the Seleção away. A draw would keep its qualifying hopes alive, but then the team would need to win at home against Uruguay and rely on Peru not beating Paraguay in Lima.

“It is clear that we cannot play a fearful match,” Chile coach Martin Lasarte said. “We have to play as equals.”

Brazil is aiming for a South American qualifying record in its two remaining games against Chile and Bolivia. Two wins would give Tite’s team 45 points, two more than Argentina’s record set ahead of the 2002 World Cup. Brazil and Argentina have already qualified for Qatar, but FIFA still wants the teams to play the match that was suspended in September.

Tuesday’s training session showed Tite wants to continue his experiment with an attacking trio of Antony, Neymar and Vinicius Jr. He is also expected to give chances to Gabriel Martinelli and Richarlison as center forwards in the remaining matches.

“No matter the fact we have qualified, we are preparing for a World Cup,” Antony said. “We will take this as another great match to play, we will give 100%.”

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