INTERNATIONAL football fanatic Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Thursday night's World Cup qualifiers from South America.
Colombia v Chile | Thursday 20:30
A mouthwatering encounter between two of South America’s hottest properties kicks-off a fantastic Thursday night of World Cup qualifiers.
Just a solitary point separates Colombia and Chile in the long road to reach Russia with the visitors benefitting significantly from FIFA's decision to punish Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player.
La Roja were embarrassingly held to a 0-0 draw against the strugglers in Santiago, dropping vital points. But FIFA overturned that result, giving the Chileans a 3-0 victory that’s pushed Juan Antonio Pizzi’s posse into fifth – the play-off position – ahead of Argentina on goal difference.
Chile have struggled since lifting their second successive Copa America in the space of two summers. La Roja were winless since taking the title in June before stuttering to victory over terrible travellers Peru 2-1 – Arturo Vidal bagged a brace and the Bayern Munich man has now scored each of Chile’s past five qualifying goals.
Pizzi will again look to Vidal for inspiration on Thursday night as a late injury to in-form Alexis Sanchez has ruled the Arsenal hitman out of action. With Gary Medel still suspended and playmaker Jorge Valdivia discarded having been deemed unfit for purpose in October, Chile are lacking real leaders.
With neither Sanchez nor Valdivia, there are question marks over La Roja’s ability to break an imposing Colombia defence this week. Having started their campaign with back-to-back wins, the visitors have picked up just two in their following eight (W2-D2-L4) when counting the Bolivia game as a draw.
It’s far from ideal for Pizzi who’s also seen his guests fail to ignite away from their home comforts in Santiago. Chile hit four goals in triumphs at Peru and Venezuela but losses at Uruguay (0-3), Paraguay (1-2) and Ecuador (0-3) were as convincing as the final score suggests.
Colombia have scheduled this fixture for the sweltering afternoon heat of Barranquilla and whilst these two countries tend to produce plenty of firecracker encounters, you have to side with Colombia prospering here.
Head coach Jose Pekerman has recalled Radamel Falcao to the squad. With Carlos Bacca and one of South America’s hottest domestic strikers Miguel Angel Borja also in the squad, the hosts have plenty of options in the final third.
But arguably most important is the return of James Rodriguez from injury. The Real Madrid star was absent for the 2-2 draw with Uruguay and 2-1 triumph in Paraguay last month but he’ll be crucial as Los Cafeteros look to take their fast, direct and attacking football to Chile.
Colombia may have only won once in seven meetings with their visitors but Pekerman’s men have lost just once in 11 home World Cup qualifiers, keeping seven clean sheets along the way. A recent return of W4-D1-L1 – the loss a narrow reverse at Brazil – means Los Cafeteros are the form side and worth supporting.
In nine of their last 11 World Cup qualifiers on home soil, Colombia have scored at least twice. Considering Chile have leaked two or more goals in 8/13 away qualifiers since 2011, it makes sense to look at the 19/20 (William Hill) available on the hosts notching Over 1.5 Goals here.
Instead, I’ll boost the odds to 7/5 (Paddy Power) by throwing Colombia to win into the equation alongside Over 1.5 Goals. It’s proven profitable in 15/26 (58%) collective home/away qualifiers since 2011.
Uruguay v Ecuador | Thursday 23:00
Uruguay have been held to low-scoring draws in each of their last two encounters when welcoming Ecuador to Montevideo but La Celeste have never suffered a home defeat to Thursday night’s visitors in competitive action.
From the outset, Ecuador’s chances of an upset appear reasonable. La Tri have already turned over Argentina in their own backyard whilst Uruguay are without suspended leading goalscorer Edinson Cavani and defender Alvaro Pereira. Cavani’s natural replacement, Abel Hernandez, is injured.
The home side are also in the midst of a sponsorship controversy off the pitch. On Monday, the players wore shirts without sponsors' names because of a wrangle over image rights. In the news conferences given by players, banners with sponsors were also banned.
But Uruguay remain a real force have still boast plenty of firepower to support joint all-time top goalscorer in South American World Cup qualification, Luis Suarez. Diego Rolan scored a peach at the weekend for Bordeaux and is likely to be given a recall in attack here.
La Celeste may not be aesthetically pleasing but they’re mighty effective, especially at the Estadio Centenario. Oscar Tabarez’s troops have churned out seven wins from their last eight here, including a 100% return from five qualifiers to date, scoring 14 goals without reply.
The bulk of Uruguay’s 21-goal tally on the road to Russia have arrived from set-piece situations and headers and it’s an avenue they’re sure to use to usurp an Ecuadorian team missing 10 players and key components.
Gustavo Quinteros’ men have W2-D4-L7 on their World Cup qualification travels since 2011 and make the journey without leading striker Enner Valencia, wing wizards Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero as well as new centre back combination, Arturo Mina and Luis Caicedo.
Elsewhere, Pedro Quinonez, Matias Oyola, Angel Mena, Marcos Caicedo and Leonel Ramírez are unavailable through injury, suspension or legal issues depriving Quinteros of his side’s biggest threat from the flanks.
The guests have suffered two setbacks at their Quito fortress of late and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to turn that form on its head with so many important key cogs missing.
I’ll take the Uruguay to win and Over 1.5 Goals route again, this time at 11/10 (BetStars). It’s a selection that will return profit should La Celeste win by any scoreline other than 1-0.
Considering Uruguay have only won by that result once in 11 years in home qualifiers and five of Ecuador’s past six away have featured at least three goals, it should give us a decent run.
Paraguay v Peru | Thursday 23:30
Roque Santa Cruz, Paraguay’s all-time leading marksman, has announced he will retire from international football following the Russia 2018 qualifiers against Peru and Bolivia this week.
The veteran represented La Albirroja in three World Cups, and has scored 32 times in 111 appearances and hopes to be given an international swansong seeing as leading strikers Dario Lezcano and Lucas Barrios are unavailable.
Head coach Fernando Arce must also do without goalkeeper Justo Villar as Paraguay attempt to push themselves back into top-five contention. The hosts are seventh in the standings but only two points adrift of the automatic qualification spots.
La Albirroja were victorious in Argentina last time out and their W2-D2-L1 return in Asuncion should be good enough to see off a Peruvian outfit that’s never won in 18 trips to Paraguay.
Los Incas are buoyed by the return of Luis Advincula following his suspension but Ricardo Gareca’s charges are without an away World Cup qualification win in 12 years (W0-D2-L25) whilst failing to net in four of their five games as guests already on this campaign.
I’ll jump on the 5/6 (Bet365) for a home success.
Venezuela v Bolivia | Thursday 23:30
Venezuela host Bolivia in a meeting of the bottom two in Maturin and there's little to inspire neutrals here with the two nations collecting just W2-D4-L14 between them during this qualification campaign, shipping 46 goals.
Bolivia’s penalty for fielding an ineligible player has resulted in La Verde losing four points earned in victories at home to Peru (2-0) and a draw in Chile (0-0) effectively ending their bleak prospects of reaching Russia.
Vice president Mario Peredo and treasurer Cliver Rocha announced their resignations from the Bolivian FA soon after but president Rolando Lopez refused to join them, arguing that his organisation had not the slightest intention of gaining an unfair advantage from the selection of ineligible Nelson Cabrera.
Still, the visitors head to Venezuela eager to put an end to an unwanted run that is very close to taking on record-breaking proportions. Bolivia are 51 away games without a win in World Cup preliminaries dating back to their victory in Venezuela from 1993.
Bolivia have picked up only five points from a possible 120 across 40 away qualification fixtures this century (W0-D5-L35) but they do have an opportunity to enhance that pathetic record with Venezuela missing a few key personnel.
Star striker Salomon Rondon, impressive Malaga midfielder Juanpi, Alejandro Guerra and Juan Pablo Anor are all out for La Vinotinto; hardly good news for a side that’s bagged only three wins from their last 21 outings.
Rondon and Josef Martinez were a genuine handful for the defences of Argentina and Brazil during recent skirmishes but Venezuela’s inability to keep their sheets clean has too often proved their downfall – the hosts have leaked at least twice in all nine matches since their opening 1-0 defeat to Paraguay.
It’s a defensive record that makes me feel like La Vinotinto are just too short in the betting. Bar a shellacking in Brazil, Bolivia have competed reasonably well over the course of the campaign and 9/10 (188BET) quotes on La Verde with a +1 start on the Asian Handicap appeal.
This selection would see our stake returned should Venezuela win by a one-goal margin with a draw or away win rewarding us with profit. The only way in which we’d lose our stake is if Venezuela were to succeed by two or more goals, a feat they haven’t achieved in home World Cup qualifiers for seven years.
Colombia v Chile – Colombia to win and Over 1.5 Goals (7/5 Paddy Power)
Uruguay v Ecuador – Uruguay to win and Over 1.5 Goals (11/10 BetStars)
Paraguay v Peru – Paraguay to win (5/6 Bet365)
Venezuela v Bolivia – Bolivia +1 Asian Handicap (9/10 188BET)