Minnows Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro told his side to ‘stay strong’ as they travel to Peru on Tuesday knowing victory would book their World Cup ticket for just the fourth time in their history .
A controversial and eventful 1-1 draw at home to Brazil on Thursday left Ecuador in an enviable position with just three games remaining in the sole South American qualifying group.
Brazil and Argentina have already qualified and Ecuador will join them if they claim victory in Lima.
“It’s not easy for Ecuador to play in the World Cup,” said the Argentinian Alfaro. “I need the team to continue, to stay strong.”
Against Peru, they will be without suspended duo Enner Valencia, the captain, and goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez.
The latter was sent off after just 15 minutes against Brazil when a reckless dash from his box saw him grab striker Matheus Cunha in the neck with his studs after trying to clear a bouncing ball.
The Valencia striker is suspended due to an accumulation of yellow cards and Ecuador will miss the leadership and predatory instincts of a man who has scored 34 goals in 68 international appearances.
Only Brazil have scored more qualifying goals than Ecuador, who also have the third-best defence.
But in June they were stunned 2-1 at home to Peru, who bolstered their qualification hopes with a last-gasp 1-0 win in Colombia on Friday.
Dominated throughout, Peru defended fiercely before hitting Colombia on the break five minutes from time through Edison Flores – although the hosts’ goalkeeper David Ospina did not cover himself in glory as he was beaten to his near post from a tight angle.
Three matches ago Peru were second in the qualifying table, but a maximum nine points from nine since, including two away wins, propelled the Andean nation into the bottom of four automatic qualifying spots.
After guiding Peru to a first World Cup final appearance in 36 years at Russia 2018, Argentina coach Ricardo Gareca – who also took the team to the 2019 Copa America final – is heading for a remarkable turnaround .
“We all know the reality of the story, but we are a group with a lot of faith and a lot of confidence. We will keep fighting,” he said.
– Uruguayan eye ‘wonderful’ finish –
Another team that was in danger of missing out was two-time former world champions Uruguay, who host bottom-running Venezuela on Tuesday.
Four successive defeats in which they conceded 11 goals and scored just one saw iconic veteran manager Oscar Tabarez give his orders in November after a record 15 years at the helm.
New boss Diego Alonso got off to a winning start as Luis Suarez struck on Thursday to hand Uruguay a 1-0 win over Paraguay.
The result all but ended Paraguay’s hopes of reaching Qatar while lifting fifth-place Uruguay – who qualify for an intercontinental play-off – just one point behind Peru, who are due to visit Montevideo in March.
“What lies ahead is going to be wonderful as long as we keep our heads in order,” Alonso said.
They will have to watch out for Venezuelan striker Salomon Rondon, brimming with confidence after his hat-trick in Friday’s 4-1 win over Bolivia.
Venezuela coach Jose Pekerman’s attention has already turned to qualifying for the 2026 World Cup and he was encouraged by what he saw in Barinas.
“Everyone complemented each other and showed what we can do in the future,” the coach said.
– Colombia are desperate for a goal –
In La Paz, Bolivia, eighth, and Chile, seventh, face off in an unmissable match.
Chile’s loss at home to Argentina left them a mountain to climb with two away matches in their three remaining games.
“We complicated things a bit in qualifying but we are not dead,” insisted Gary Medel, one of the three veterans in the group with more than 140 caps.
Another team staring into the abyss is sixth-placed Colombia, who haven’t scored in six matches before their trip to Argentina.