South American World Cup qualification on pace for spectacular finale

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    We are in the middle of that one week every four years – that one week where the composition of teams for the next World Cup will be 90% locked in.

    Until now, it’s been a trickle of teams that have qualified. Brazil opened the tap just a little bit in March and it’s been a slow drip of teams that have qualified in August and September.

    Coming into October, 24 World Cup spots remained up for grabs and by the end of the week, 16 of those will have been determined and filled by the lucky countries that have survived the gruelling process, proving that simply making the World Cup can be just as good as winning the actual thing.

    While most of the attention has justifiably been focused on Australia’s now titanic struggle to qualify, away from the AFC playoffs there have been some fantastic stories of triumph and heartbreak in other confederations.

    Brad Smith Australia Football Socceroos 2017

    (AAP Image/Matt Roberts)

    UEFA is drawing to a thrilling close with heavyweights such as the Netherlands almost certainly booking in alternative plans in June, while bantamweights such as Iceland are proving that Euro 2016 was no fluke.

    Scotland blew a golden chance and will now be ruing what might have been. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, survives for another month.

    CONCACAF seems to be sorting itself out after much conjecture with Costa Rica locking in second spot and the US needing only to draw their final game for spot three.

    The all-important playoff spot (of which Australian fans may or may not care about come Wednesday morning) is anyone’s guess between Panama and Honduras. Both teams lost their final match against already qualified teams in Costa Rica and Mexico, respectively.

    Panama have an advantage of F/A, but can’t rely on a draw. Both teams will need to win and hope the other doesn’t. Bring it on.

    In Africa, the story is a little clearer. Egypt and Nigeria are in. Senegal and Tunisia are likely to follow.

    Watch out for a winner-takes-all clash in November between Morocco and the Ivory Coast.

    However, the most interesting confederation – by far – is COMNEBOL. It’s the hardest of all confederation qualifying systems, and after 17 gruelling rounds, it’s still only Brazil who have been identifying training camps in Russia.

    Brazil star Neymar against Croatia at the 2014 FIFA World Cup (Wiki Commons)

    (Wiki Commons)

    All five games are ‘live’, and I’d wager that Nostradamus has probably thrown paperwork in the air and has just given up on what the final ladder will look like.

    The most spectacular of all finales is about to play itself out.

    Uruguay, in second, are all but on the plane to Russia. At worst, they are airside at the airport.

    They need only to draw against Bolivia (or realistically, not lose by much) and they are off to Russia in a directly qualified spot for the first time in years.

    That said, should Uruguay lose and Argentina, Chile and Peru/Colombia all win, then Uruguay will for a fifth consecutive time, be in the playoff spot.

    However, of all outcomes, this is the least likely.

    Chile, in third on 26 points, faces the hardest of all examinations. They face the daunting task of going to Brazil knowing that a draw may not be enough, and will need to push a win.

    If you think Brazil is going to lie over – think again.

    Brazil qualified for the World Cup in March and have still pushed for the win at every home game since. Brazil have not lost at home in a World Cup qualifier for years either, and would certainly want to wrap up their campaign with the three points.

    Dangerous times for Chile. Win, and they are in. Lose or draw, and then they have to wait to see what Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Paraguay can do.

    Colombia, in fourth on 26 points, will wonder how it’s come to this. With ten minutes to go last week, qualification was all but in the bag holding a 1-0 lead over out of contention Ecuador.

    By full time it was a 2-1 loss. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve qualified or whether you can’ – every team goes out to win in South America.

    The upshot is that they now must travel to Peru, who are fifth on 25 points, for what will need to be an epic winner-takes-all encounter.

    A draw for either team, much like for Chile, may not be enough. Should Peru win, it will be the first time since 1982 that they have qualified for a World Cup.

    The stakes are high. Peru held on for a 0-0 draw against Argentina in Buenos Aires last week to ensure they live to fight another day.

    Speaking of Argentina, in sixth on 25 points they face an almighty battle to get in. They have to travel to face Ecuador.

    Lionel Messi Argentina Football World Cup 2014

    (Wikimedia Commons)

    On paper, this would appear to be an easy win for Argentina. Sadly for the Argentinians, a World Cup isn’t played on paper.

    Argentina have not won a World Cup qualifier in Quito since 2001. Argentina are in dreadful form. And as Ecuador proved against Colombia, just because they are out of contention, does not mean that they will be an easy beat team.

    Argentina needs to win, and honestly, it may not even be enough to directly qualify.

    A draw will almost certainly see them out of the World Cup – a nearly unthinkable outcome when the qualification series began in 2015.

    Finally, in seventh on 24 points, Paraguay. Oddly, this team are probably in the box seat to sneak in and queue jump the teams ahead of them.

    They are fortunate enough to be hosting bottom-placed Venezuela. The equation is very simple for them: win. Preferably win well.

    And they should win. Venezuela are rubbish and have been rubbish the entire campaign. They’ll still need to cross some fingers, but they know that Colombia and Peru will cannibalise the other team’s chances, that Argentina are up against it in Quito, and with Chile having to somehow sneak past Brazil, Paraguay may sneak up to as high as third, and most likely fourth.

    The good news for whichever team that finishes fifth is that they have New Zealand as their OFC opponent in November. No guarantees of course…

    Phew. The carnage commences Wednesday morning.

    Enjoy.