A tight and testy affair can be expected when Chile host Uruguay on Tuesday (11.30pm GMT) in search of three points that would go a long way towards definitively righting their previously faltering qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
The controversial sending off of Edinson Cavani (pictured) under extreme provocation from Gonzalo Jara during Chile’s 1-0 win over Uruguay in the quarter-final of the 2015 Copa America created tension between these sides. That again flared up, on and off the pitch, during Uruguay’s 3-0 home win in the reverse qualifying fixture back in November of last year. It can be expected that some of that bad blood will carry over to this encounter.
The first-mentioned of those fixtures represented a key victory for Chile en route to their first-ever major international trophy. They followed that success with a further triumph at the Copa America Centenario in the United States in the summer. Yet their qualification for a third consecutive World Cup looked to be in serious doubt just a couple of rounds ago on the back of just two wins in their previous seven qualifiers.
When they found themselves level at home to Peru last month with the clock ticking down, it seemed as if their realistic hopes of qualifying were about to be ended. However, a late goal from Arturo Vidal secured a victory that was then followed by further good news as FIFA ruled that Bolivia had fielded an ineligible player in their 0-0 draw with Chile in September. The result was therefore declared as a 3-0 win, giving Chile two extra points.
They then added a further point to their total with a defensively minded 0-0 draw away to Colombia on Thursday. Such an approach, conditioned by the extreme heat and humidity in Barranquilla, has rarely been seen from Chile in recent years. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi suggested afterwards that the performance and result would strengthen the togetherness of his squad, as they now know they are capable of taking on any team in any situation.
Arturo Vidal and Claudio Bravo are expected to recover from the injuries they picked up in that match to start on Tuesday, while there seems to be growing confidence that Alexis Sanchez will be fit to play after missing out on Thursday. Eduardo Vargas was left isolated by the tactics against Colombia and would certainly relish the return of his long-time strike partner. Midfielder Charles Aranguiz is suspended but Gary Medel will return in defence.
Uruguay opened up a six-point gap to fifth with a professional 2-1 victory at home to Ecuador on Thursday. They went in at the interval ahead by that scoreline thanks to goals from Sebastian Coates and Diego Rolan and then defended solidly in a deep block thereafter to frustrate their visitors and extend their perfect home record to six wins from six qualifiers.
La Celeste have traditionally been stronger in tournament play than in South America’s league-like qualification group but that pattern has recently been turned on its head. They have failed to progress beyond the first knockout round of each of their last three international tournaments yet have performed very well during the qualification process for Russia 2018, winning seven and losing just two of their 11 fixtures to date.
Uruguay’s approach is a simple one. They keep things tight at the back with a defence that is expertly marshalled by the consistently excellent Diego Godin. They have willing grafters throughout the side and move forward quickly and efficiently on the counter-attack, with rapid wide players and a front two of Edinson Cavani and the ever-potent Luis Suarez. Cavani missed out through injury on Thursday but could return for this match.
Oscar Washington Tabarez is now in his 10th year of his second spell as national team head coach and there are a number of players who have been involved throughout much of his reign who are now coming towards the end of their time with La Celeste. Yet Uruguay have both the best defensive record and the second-best scoring record during the qualifiers to date and are the sort of side who take great pleasure in stifling and upsetting confident hosts.
Chile certainly possess enough attacking verve to cause the Uruguay defence a good number of problems, as evidenced by the fact that they have only once failed to score in their last 16 World Cup qualifiers on home soil. But Uruguay’s strengths on the counter-attack and in providing a threat from set pieces have traditionally been defensive weak points for Chile.