Ecuador on verge of World Cup berth but face stern test in Peru

Brazil and Argentina are already over the line -- and Ecuador will become the third World Cup qualifier from South America if they win away to Peru on Tuesday night.

It is the meeting of the teams lying third and fourth in the table -- which is a tribute to the fine work of two Argentine coaches. Gustavo Alfaro came in at short notice and rescued Ecuador from a spiral of decline. They made an excellent start to the Russia 2018 qualifiers before collapsing. There were internal wranglings -- at one point it was not even clear who was running the local FA. Ecuador lost their last six qualifiers, and responded by bringing back Hernan Dario Gomez, who had taken them to their first World Cup back in 2002. A disastrous 2019 Copa America ended his second reign.

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Then there was an failed project with Jordi Cruyff, who resigned before taking charge of a single game, and with youth coach Jorge Celico the team managed to lose a friendly 6-1 to an Argentina side lacking Lionel Messi. In came Alfaro. A counter-attacking coach, he was the right fit for Ecuador. He does have a promising crop of youngsters to choose from -- Ecuador were South American Under-20 champions in 2019 -- and he has had the courage to throw the youngsters into the deep end.

Peru boss Ricardo Gareca must envy Ecuador its youngsters. Peruvian football is not producing anything like the same quality. The only significant newcomer to the side since Russia 2018 is Gianluca Lapadula, a veteran Italian striker who belatedly chose to represent the land of his mother's birth. But Gareca keeps on turning out a Peru side that adds up to greater than the sum of its parts. They are well coached, with clear ideas of moving the ball in possession, and a solidity in defence that is little short of amazing. In the two qualification campaigns before Gareca, Peru drew one away match -- and lost the other 16. A collapse was never far away.

Now, without any great improvement in the quality of players, they are far more resilient. Last Friday they were battered by wave after wave of Colombian attacks. But they stuck to their task, heading away the crosses, throwing themselves in front of shots -- and ended up winning an improbable victory with a rare late break out. Tuesday night in Lima will be different. At home Peru will look to carry the game -- which could play into the hands of the Ecuadorian counter attack. It is an intriguing prospect -- a clash between two teams who are currently brimming with confidence.

Below them, the qualification table is full of sides who are drowning in desperation. Peru vs. Ecuador closes the 16th round -- which opens in La Paz with the meeting of Bolivia and Chile. One of these teams might just sneak into fifth place, the playoff slot. But there is no room or both of them, and a draw is good for no one. It is, then, a case of high drama at the extreme altitude of La Paz, where Bolivia are so strong. Although Chile have a point more, Bolivia are probably in the stronger position. Two of their remaining three games are at home. Chile still have to visit Brazil. Fifth place is looking a long way away.

The team currently in fifth are Uruguay, who made a good start on Thursday under new coach Diego Alonso with a sound and well deserved 1-0 win away to Paraguay. They now host bottom of the table Venezuela. It might be thought that this game is a home banker, and that Uruguay can already imagine how the table will look after they have chalked up three more points. Venezuela, after all, have lost all seven of their away games so far. But it would be dangerous thinking. This Venezuela is not that Venezuela. As they set out on the road towards the 2026 World Cup under vastly experienced new coach Jose Pekerman, they are at full strength. Star centre forward Salomon Rondon is available. He has only played in three of the 15 rounds -- scoring in the home wins over Chile and Bolivia (last Friday, where he helped himself to a hat-trick), and giving Brazil something to think about in a creditable 1-0 defeat. With Rondon as the spearhead, supported by the wingplay of Darwin Machis and Yeferson Soteldo, Venezuela are dangerous, and the game in Montevideo will be an interesting test of the new Uruguay.

A place below them in the table, Colombia will be hoping that Uruguay slip up. More than anything, though, Colombia will be hoping for a goal. Astonishingly for such a talented team, Colombia have gone six games without finding the back of the net. And now they travel to face Argentina, unbeaten in 28 games. But Colombia's task is not hopeless. Argentina are somewhat depleted. Already without Lionel Messi and defender Cristian Romero, suspension has also robbed them of Nicolas Otamendi, the other first choice centre-back, plus both left-backs in Nico Tagliafico and Marcos Acuna, and key midfielder Rodrigo De Paul. And against Argentina's possession game, Colombia will surely have some space in which to attack -- something that was missing last Friday against a very defensive Peru. Playing away from home may also work to Colombia's advantage -- relations between the team and the fans in Barranquilla have become strained. Cordoba may prove more hospitable.

But the most desperate plight of all is that of Paraguay. Like Colombia they have gone six games without scoring a goal, with the difference that in their case a goal has rarely seemed likely. And now they travel to face Brazil, who in all their history have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home. They have, of course, lost World Cup matches -- like that extraordinary 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014. Paraguay can draw some heart from the fact that the venue for the match is the same as that one -- the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte. And they will also hope that Miguel Almiron can cause some damage running at veteran right-back Daniel Alves. But the bad news for Paraguay is that even a historic, highly unlikely win on Tuesday, followed by two more triumphs in March, will almost certainly not be good enough to get to Qatar later this year.