South American rivals meet in race to Russia

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi attends a training session in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, on August 29, 2017 ahead of their FIFA World Cup qualifier football match against Uruguay. / AFP PHOTO / Juan MABROMATA

Luis Suarez could yet line up against Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi today (2am tomorrow in Kenya) as South America’s battle for 2018 World Cup places resumes with Argentina’s trip to Uruguay the pick of the fixtures.

With leaders Brazil already locking up their place at next year’s tournament, attention turns to the tussle for the three remaining automatic berths on offer in the marathon 10-team qualifying tournament.

Colombia are second in the standings on 24 points while Uruguay and Chile occupy the other two automatic spots on 23 points.

This means that fifth-placed Argentina have little margin for error as they head to Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario for the latest instalment of their historic rivalry with the Uruguayans.

Argentina have spluttered their way through the qualifiers so far, notching only six wins in 14 games, but have shown signs of life under new coach Jorge Sampaoli.

Sampaoli, who masterminded Chile’s victory at the 2015 Copa America, took control of the ‘Albiceleste’ in May, and began his reign with a morale-boosting 1-0 win over Brazil in a friendly in June.

A 6-0 romp over lowly Singapore provided a further clue that Sampaoli, who favours an aggressive attacking style, may already have begun to have an influence.

Sampaoli served notice of his determination to invigorate Argentina’s ranks by axing striker Gonzalo Higuain in favour of Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi.

Icardi is expected to start at the apex of a front three with Messi and Juventus prodigy Paulo Dybala lurking just behind.

Argentina’s path to Russia has been complicated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling on Tuesday that confirmed a sanction against Bolivia for fielding an ineligible player in their September 2016 0-0 draw with Chile.

Fifa later converted that result to a 3-0 win for Chile, which means they are one point ahead of Argentina.

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