Argentina and Brazil will have their own private battle in Tuesday's fourteenth round of South America's World Cup qualifiers. With Brazil already over the line and Argentina as good as, their meeting has little relevance on the outcome of the campaign.
The hard truth for the rest of the continent is that with two slots effectively taken, just two and a half are left -- and they are being chased by seven countries; all of the others, with the exception of bottom of the table Venezuela.
Ecuador have given themselves a four-point cushion, and will stay in third place no matter what happens on Tuesday. But the plight of the three teams just below them highlights the competitive nature of the campaign. Chile, Colombia and Uruguay all have 16 points. As it stands, the first of them will go through to the World Cup, the second will have to go into a playoff, and the last will go home. The lines are thin indeed.
And then two points further back are Peru -- who were bottom of the table at the start of September but have played themselves back into contention. And then, two points behind them, Paraguay and Bolivia still cling to faint hopes. If they can win four of the last five games they will end up on 24 points -- good enough for Uruguay to snatch fifth place in the 2010 qualifiers - the World Cup when the Uruguayans ended up going all the way to the semi finals.
So the calculators are out and the number of the cardiologist is at hand. There have been some wild fluctuations. Chile went seven games without a win, before sparking into life and threading together three consecutive victories. In contrast, Uruguay were six games unbeaten, until going down to three straight defeats. Colombia have been more grimly consistent. Thursday's 1-0 loss to Brazil brought an end to an unbeaten run of eight matches. But only two of them were victories.
Goals have been hard to come by. Colombia have failed to find the back of the net in their last four matches -- just like Paraguay, Tuesday's opponents. Colombia hope that the late afternoon heat of Barranquilla will wear down the Paraguayans. Under new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto it seems clear that Paraguay will aim to sit deep, soak up the pressure and look to launch the speed of Miguel Almiron on the counter attack. Colombia could well miss the defensive excellence of midfield anchorman Wilmar Barrios, who is suspended. It will be interesting to see whether Colombia commit themselves to all out attack from the beginning. Might coach Reinaldo Rueda, for example, be tempted to start with James Rodriguez? Or will he be held in reserve for the second half? A 0-0 draw here does not really suit either side, which should make for an interesting encounter.
Another team who will need to ration their desperation is Uruguay. They deserved better than a 1-0 defeat to Argentina last Friday, when they pressed aggressively in midfield and had the bulk of the chances. But that same gameplan will need to be adjusted for Tuesday's trip to the dreaded altitude of La Paz to face Bolivia. At 3,600 metres above sea level, it is simply impossible for unacclimatised sides to play a hard running game. Uruguay will have to stay solid, bide their time and make use of the desperation of Bolivia, who have no chance of making it to Qatar without winning all their remaining home games.
Bolivia's most recent conquerors were Peru, who moved the ball fluidly through over-optimistic opponents in Lima last Thursday to open up an early 3-0 lead. Peru might now find things harder away to Venezuela, a team who are better than a glance at the table might indicate. Coach Leonardo Gonzalez would love to sign off his spell in caretaker charge with a win -- last month his team won at home to Ecuador and also led Brazil for an hour. And they came on strongly in the closing stages of Thursday's visit to Ecuador. Peru need the win, and will have to fight for the points.
But possibly the most intriguing tie of the night (Argentina vs. Brazil excepted) is the game in Santiago between Chile and Ecuador, where the third placed team meet the fourth with high stakes on the table. True, Ecuador will end the round still in third place. But the only home games they have left are against Brazil and Argentina. They can take nothing for granted. Coach Gustavo Alfaro has fashioned an interesting young side which, perhaps inevitably, is inconsistent. They have produced a couple of irresistible performances at home, tearing into Colombia and Uruguay. But they only have one away win to their credit, in Bolivia. Alfaro is a proficient defensive organiser, and his team came away with no points from trips to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. But each time they were hard to break down, and after Thursday's 1-0 win over Venezuela, Alfaro was declaring that clean sheets were going to get the team to Qatar. He has some key players back after suspension -- centre forward Michael Estrada, creative midfielder Angel Mena and attacking left back Pervis Estupinan. All three of them are weapons for the counter attack.
Much, then, will depend on his his youthful defence, marshalled by Felix Torres, can handle the Chile attack. After three wins there is plenty of confidence in the Chile camp -- but the loss through suspension of striker Ben Brereton Diaz is a serious blow. His physicality and enthusiasm have lifted the whole side, and provided a platform for the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, who remain the team's most important players. Chile's golden generation mostly emerged together through the Under-20 side back in 2007. They ran out of steam together in the closing stages of the Russia 2018 qualifiers. This time they will have to come on strongly in the final straight, because all of their remaining games look tough, starting with the clash of the Chilean veterans against the kids from Ecuador.