Appetising matchups aplenty in round 11 of CONMEBOL qualifying
Brazil versus Argentina tends to overshadow everything. But there are some other interesting attractions in Thursday's 11th round of South America's World Cup qualification campaign.
This is a round in which the top six teams meet each other -- and where all but Brazil and Uruguay could be overtaken by seventh place Paraguay, strong favourites to say a winning farewell to all-time top scorer Roque Santa Cruz when they host Peru.
The round gets off to an appetising start with the match between fourth placed Colombia and Chile, who sit one point behind them in fifth. The meetings between these two sides in the sweltering afternoon heat of Barranquilla tend to be dramatic.
In the previous qualifying campaign Chile opened up a 3-0 lead only for the game to finish 3-3. The point was enough to ensure Colombia's qualification. Chile soon joined them. And in a 2010 qualifier in Medellin, Chile quickly fell behind a goal, but rallied to win 4-2 -- a result which sealed Chile's place in South Africa and condemned Colombia to miss out on a third consecutive World Cup.
In the current campaign the teams fought out a 1-1 draw in Santiago a year ago -- a match which saw Colombia edge towards an identity and model of play which has served them well in recent rounds. In the last six rounds they have accumulated four wins, one draw and a single, narrow defeat away to Brazil, often playing quickly up to a front three, a gameplan unveiled last November in Santiago. Colombia's attacking resources are boosted by the return to form and recall of Radamel Falcao, while Chile are without Alexis Sanchez, who suffered a muscle injury in training.
Chile climbed from fifth to sixth last week at the stroke of a pen. September's opponents Bolivia were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player, meaning that a game that finished goalless was awarded to Chile with a 3-0 margin.
In reality, though, they would love to go back to that moment when they took the field against Colombia for last year's third round of the campaign. They had won their opening two matches. The subsequent 8 games have brought -- on the field at least -- just 2 more wins.
Last month, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi ceded to the will of the senior figures in the dressing room and recalled playmaker Jorge Valdivia to the squad. But he did not consider Valdivia fit enough to take the field, and he has been quickly discarded. Without him, and in the absence of Sanchez, will Chile have enough attacking flair to play their way through an imposing Colombia defence?
If Colombia against Chile in Barranquilla produces goals, the same cannot be said for Uruguay against Ecuador in Montevideo. Last cycle this match finished 1-1, and their meeting in the 2010 campaign ended goalless. That being said, it would be something of a surprise if the same were to happen this time around.
True, Uruguay have striker Edinson Cavani suspended, and Abel Hernandez, his natural replacement is injured. But they still have plenty of firepower to support Luis Suarez -- Diego Rolan, who scored for Bordeaux at the weekend with a superb overhead kick, would be a candidate to come in. La Celeste remain faithful to their model of play and despite no great aspiration to aesthetic beauty, they grind out results.
Ecuador coach Gustavo Quinteros even described them as "solid but a little slow." The problem that Quinteros faces is that he is without his best players at exposing such a weakness. Ecuador's greatest strength is down the flanks. But right winger Antonio Valencia and left winger Jefferson Montero are both out injured. And leading striker Enner Valencia, who played himself back into form last month, is suspended -- as are both of the new centre back combination, Arturo Mina and Luis Caicedo. Centre back Frickson Erazo, still finding his best form after injury, and the veteran Gabriel Achilier, his likely partner, will need to be at their absolute best to keep Suarez under control.
In both of these top six clashes -- just like Brazil against Argentina -- the advantage would seem to be with the home side.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.