For front-running Brazil, the main aim this week is beating Colombia and securing an automatic spot at next year's World Cup in Qatar with plenty of time to spare in South American qualifying. For second-place Argentina, the bigger concern ahead of its trip to Uruguay is over the fitness of Lionel Messi.
Brazil has 31 points and Argentina has 25 from 11 matches — their encounter in September was bizarrely suspended after seven minutes of play because of concerns from authorities over breaches of COVID-19 protocols. FIFA will decide what to do with it. Ecuador (17), Colombia (16) and Uruguay (16) hold the next three places, but have all played 12 matches.
The top four teams in South America earn direct entry to next year's World Cup. The fifth-place team goes into an inter-continental playoff for a spot in Qatar. A Brazil victory at the NeoQuimica Arena in Sao Paulo on Thursday will put coach Tite's team 18 points ahead of fourth-place Colombia, which will have only five more matches in hand. The Colombians are the only team to hold the Seleção to a draw in the current edition of qualifiers.
Some mathematical combinations allow second-placed Argentina to hope for its direct spot with a win against Brazil next week in San Juan, but the Copa America champions will have to beat Uruguay in Montevideo on Friday to have any chance of achieving that in front of their home fans.
There's three other matches in South American qualifying on Thursday, including Ecuador hosting last-place Venezuela and Peru against Bolivia.
Paraguay, in eighth place, will play sixth-place Chile in a match that could nearly end qualification hopes for one of them. Guillermo Barros Schelotto will have his debut as head coach after Paraguay fired Eduardo Berizzo in October.
BRAZIL vs. COLOMBIA
Brazil, pushing for a record eighth consecutive home win in World Cup qualifiers, has had very physical matches against Colombia recently. And that worries its players and coach ahead of Thursday's showdown. It was the case at a 0-0 draw in Barranquilla last month and also at a Copa America group stage match in June, won by the hosts 2-1 at the last minute in Rio de Janeiro.
Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, Eder Militão, Casemiro, Fabinho, Gerson, Lucas Paquetá and Gabriel Jesus will be suspended for Tuesday's match at Argentina if they get a yellow card against Colombia. That is why Tite's starting line up is anything but certain.
“Colombia is always a very tough rival. They have always played very hard in these games,” Brazil midfielder Lucas Paquetá told a news conference Tuesday.
“Every match against them is a hard-fought one.”
Colombia did not score any goals in the three rounds of qualifiers in October, and will miss injured striker Radamel Falcao.
“We are not going for a draw, we want to beat them and have due care," Colombia striker Miguel Borja said. “Other teams have gone at them and then they concede three, four times. We have the potential to win.” Midfielder James Rodríguez, who was left out of previous rounds by coach Reinaldo Rueda, is back.
URUGUAY vs. ARGENTINA
Messi has travelled to Argentina but has a knee injury that kept him out of two matches for his club Paris Saint-Germain. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni has not given any hints on whether Messi will play or, in the case he doesn't, who would be picked as a replacement.
Scaloni will also be worried about other players in Montevideo. Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Tagliafico, Lucas Martinez Quarta, Gonzalo Montiel, Germán Pezella, Giovanni Lo Celso, Rodrigo De Paul, Exequiel Palacios, and Nicolás Domínguez will be out against Brazil if they get a yellow card.
But it is Uruguay, a team that still is in a qualifying position, which will be under more pressure. The Uruguayans had heavy losses to Brazil and Argentina last month and the future of veteran coach Óscar Tabárez might be at stake in the next two qualifiers.
“I don't think about that," Tabárez said in response to questions about his job security. These decisions are for officials. I have a contract, I have had one for 15 years and my obligations are very specific."
Uruguay has a long injury list, including defenders Sebastián Cáceres, Sebastián Coates and Matías Viña, midfielders Federico Valverde, Nicolás de la Cruz and Giorgian de Arrascaeta, and forwards Edinson Cavani, Darwin Núñez and Maximiliano Gómez. Rodrigo Betancur is suspended against Argentina.