SAO PAULO (AP) The only team to play in every World Cup is about to qualify for the next one.
Brazil could ensure its spot at the 2018 tournament in Russia with a victory at Uruguay on Thursday. Depending on other results, however, the five-time champions may have to wait until next week when they face Paraguay in Sao Paulo.
Either way, Brazil’s turnaround has been rather spectacular. Just over 2+ years ago, the Brazilians were humiliated at home in a 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinals.
The difference has been coach Adenor Leonardo Bacchi – known at Tite (pronounced Chi-Chi) – who took over last year after Dunga was fired. In six qualifying matches under Tite, Brazil has won all six.
Brazil leads the 10-team South American qualifying group with 27 points from 12 matches. Uruguay is four behind and in good shape to take the second of four automatic World Cup berths. A fifth South American team can also advance through a playoff.
But after Brazil and Uruguay, the race for the other qualifying spots is wide open with only six matches remaining.
Ecuador and Chile have 20 points each and Argentina has 19, followed by Colombia with 18, Paraguay with 15 and Peru with 14. At the bottom, Bolivia has seven points and Venezuela has five.
Neither Brazil nor Uruguay will be able to count on their top strikers for the match. The hosts will be without suspended Barcelona forward Luis Suarez, and the visitors will miss injured Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus, who has a broken toe on his right foot.
Brazil winger Douglas Costa is also out with an injured knee and will be replaced by Palmeiras winger Dudu.
Brazil, however, will have Barcelona striker Neymar, and he can turn any match at any moment.
“If I had a formula, I wouldn’t tell you. But I confess I don’t have one,” Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said. “I have the sense, from what I see in every match, that many other coaches still haven’t found the secret, and neither have the players who go against Neymar.”
Two-time champion Argentina faces a tough match against Chile in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
The Argentines will be without defender Pablo Zabaleta, who has an injured left leg.
After the match against Chile, Argentina plays at Bolivia, where it will battle the thin air in La Paz. The Bolivian capital is located at 3,600 meters (11,900 feet) and is always a treacherous venue for visiting teams.
THE OTHER MATCHES
In other matches Thursday, it’s: Colombia vs. Bolivia; Paraguay vs. Ecuador; and Venezuela vs. Peru.
On March 28, it’s: Bolivia vs. Argentina; Ecuador vs. Colombia; Chile vs. Venezuela; Brazil vs. Paraguay; and Peru vs. Uruguay.