Montevideo (AFP) – Ecuador will try to break a historic hoodoo Thursday when they travel to Paraguay seeking the point that would book their ticket to the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
In eight previous World Cup qualifiers away to Paraguay, going back to 1981, Ecuador have lost every single one.
If they avoid defeat, they would qualify for Qatar 2022 with a game to spare, turning their final match at home to Argentina in Guayaquil on March 29 into a celebration, something many Ecuadorans thought impossible when the campaign began.
“This national team deserves double the praise because you have to be very honest, 99.9 percent of Ecuadorans did not think they would qualify for the World Cup,” Carlos Tenorio, a former international striker who scored twice for Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, told El Universo.
“People still remember Tenorio’s goals in 2006,” when Ecuador reached the last 16.
“In our time we gave joy but now these guys deserve much more and they have far better conditions than we did to achieve it.”
Paraguay’s slim hopes of reaching Qatar ended with a 1-0 loss at home to Uruguay at the end of January and a 4-0 defeat in Brazil at the start of February.
Brazil and Argentina secured qualification last year and both remain unbeaten during the campaign.
– Uruguay to ‘make life difficult’ for Peru –
The top four teams in the single South American qualifying group earn automatic spots in Qatar, while the fifth-placed finishers enter an inter-continental play-off.
Uruguay can also book their berth on Thursday, when they host Peru in Montevideo.
A run of four straight losses had left Uruguay’s hopes in the balance but the country’s federation, sacked iconic veteran coach Oscar Tabarez in November after 15 years — in which he led the team to the 2010 World Cup semi-final and victory at the Copa America a year later.
His replacement, Diego Alonso, had a perfect start with the 1-0 win in Asuncion followed by a 4-1 victory at home to Venezuela.
Victory over Peru, who are a point behind, coupled with Chile, three points back, failing to win away to Brazil would secure the Celeste’s ticket to Qatar.
But Alonso knows Uruguay cannot afford to slip up with a trip to Chile on the horizon.
Failure to beat Peru would not only put automatic qualification at risk but would mean a loss in Chile could see Uruguay miss out on the play-off as well, with Colombia (five points back) also still in the mix for a top-five place.
“Peru are a team that have been competing at a high level for seven years,” said Alonso.
Peru qualified for the last World Cup in Russia, and have made the semi-finals in four of the last five Copa America tournaments.
“All this shows they are dangerous. We will try to play our game, in the areas of the pitch where we feel strong and comfortable, to make life difficult for Peru.”
Uruguay’s veteran forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are short of match practice, struggling for playing time at Atletico Madrid and Manchester United respectively.
Peru will be without experienced forward pair Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfan.
– Colombia desperate for a goal –
Chile’s faint hopes of securing an automatic berth rest on winning on Thursday away to a Brazil welcoming back Neymar from injury.
“I’ve been waiting for this match for some time,” said Chile’s veteran midfielder Arturo Vidal, who is returning from suspension.
Argentina, who host rock-bottom Venezuela on Friday, are unbeaten in 29 matches. Even though they had already qualified and rested Lionel Messi in their last two matches, they still beat Chile and Colombia, denting both sides’ hopes.
Messi is back for the final two qualifiers.
Brazil, also unbeaten, have been by far the top scorers while also boasting the best defense.
Colombia retain an outside chance of automatic qualification, but even if they beat Bolivia at home on Thursday and win their final match away to Venezuela, a play-off berth would likely be the most they could hope for.
To win either match, Colombia would have to find a way to end their record run of seven matches without a goal.
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