A buoyant Brazil could book their place at the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday while Argentina will attempt to give their qualifying campaign more breathing space with a game at altitude against Bolivia.
After sinking into a protracted depression after the trauma of their humiliating 2014 World Cup exit, Brazil have undergone a transformation since new manager Tite took over last year.
Tite, who was appointed after the debacle of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, when Brazil failed to qualify from the group stage, has overseen a record-breaking run of seven straight wins.
The latest of those victories came on Thursday, when Brazil shrugged off an early Edinson Cavani goal to destroy Uruguay 4-1 in Montevideo.
That win marked a new record for Brazil in qualifiers, surpassing the six straight victories recorded by the fabled Pele-led team which went on to win the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Brazil’s magnificent run of form under Tite means they now lead the South American standings with 30 points from 13 games, seven points clear of second placed Uruguay who have 23 points.
It is all a far cry from the state of the table last September. When Tite took charge of his first qualifying game, Brazil were languishing in sixth place overall, with only nine points from six games.
But on Tuesday, if Brazil beat Paraguay in Sao Paulo, and Chile and both Ecuador and Chile lose their games, the five-time World Cup-winners will have secured their berth in Russia.
Tite meanwhile has attempted to keep the soaring optimism that accompanied Brazil’s revival in check, insisting that he is not a miracle-worker.
“If people want a perfect coach, they should look elsewhere, because at some point I’m going to make a mistake,” Tite said following Thursday’s rout of historical rivals Uruguay.
– Balanced attack –
Arguably, Tite’s most significant achievement since taking charge is to make Brazil less reliant on Barcelona superstar Neymar.
While Neymar has flourished under Tite — scoring five times in qualifying since the former Corinthians coach took over — the “Selecao” is now a more rounded attacking force.
Goals have arrived from all areas, with China-based midfielder Paulinho — one of the most maligned players of Brazil’s ill-fated 2014 World Cup campaign — conjuring an improbable hat-trick against Uruguay last week.
Yet if Brazil’s passage to Russia is now a formality, the situation is anything but straightforward for the chasing pack.
Argentina hauled themselves back into the qualifying places on Thursday with a battling 1-0 win over Chile.
The Argentinians will attempt to build on that crucial victory when the travel to the thin air of La Paz to face Bolivia on Tuesday.
The city’s Estadio Hernando Siles is situated some 3,600 metres (11,800 ft) above sea level, and was the scene of a famous 6-1 Argentinian defeat in qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.
In qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, Lionel Messi was left vomiting at half-time while Angel Di Maria needed to be given oxygen on the pitch before Argentina ground out a 1-1 draw.
Failure to beat Bolivia on Tuesday could see Argentina fall out of the automatic qualifying positions once more, if Colombia beat Ecuador in Quito and reigning South American champions Chile down bottom team Venezuela in Santiago.
Chile, back-to-back winners of the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, are currently outside the qualifying places following last week’s defeat in Buenos Aires.
Captain Claudio Bravo vowed ‘La Roja’ would go all out to secure victory against Venezuela.
“We will be more aggressive at home, for sure,” Bravo said. The fact that Chile dominated Argentina for long periods on Thursday has left the squad encouraged, the Manchester City goalkeeper added.
“We lost but analysis of the game leaves us strengthened, because we are convinced that by playing this way we will reach the World Cup,” Bravo said. – Agence France-Presse