South America turning up the heat for Russia

MONTEVIDEO • Luis Suarez could yet line up against Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi this morning (Singapore time) 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 booked for next year's tournament in Russia, attention turns to the tussle for the three remaining automatic berths on offer in the 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 Uruguay.

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 Copa America in 2015, took control of Argentina 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 Singapore provided a further clue that Sampaoli, who favours an aggressive, attacking style, may already have begun to have an influence.

Argentina's path to Russia has been complicated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling on Tuesday that confirmed a sanction against Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player in their 0-0 draw with Chile in September last year.

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 Argentina.

"Now we have to play catch-up to get to the World Cup," Sampaoli said on Tuesday.

Uruguay are sweating on the fitness of striker 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 today. "He has shown signs of recovery that have surprised us," he said.

Elsewhere, second-placed Colombia will aim to edge closer to qualification with an away victory over already-eliminated Venezuela. Chile host Paraguay as they aim to remain ahead of Argentina.

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.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2017, with the headline 'South America turning up the heat for Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe