The state of play in South America’s World Cup qualifiers

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There are no real prizes for coming first. Or second for that matter. World Cup qualification in South America is all about crossing the line and making it through to Russia.

The first four teams qualify automatically for next year’s tournament, with the side finishing fifth having to play off against opponents from Oceania. And as the competition moves into the final third, only Brazil are really sitting pretty.

Those six consecutive wins under new coach Tite have carried Brazil to 27 points. In past campaigns, 28 have always been enough for automatic qualification. The poor performances of Bolivia and Venezuela probably raise the bar a little this time, making it fair to assume that 29 will be an acceptable total.

Either way, with six games still to go, Brazil are only one win away from their target, and can already start planning for Russia 2018. Second-placed Uruguay have 23 points, meaning that two wins should see them home. Their positional is comfortable enough, though the remaining fixtures are not easy, starting with the visit of Brazil on Thursday.

Then comes the dogfight. Ecuador and Chile each have 20 points, with Argentina on 19 and Colombia 18. One of these teams is going to miss out altogether — maybe two if Paraguay (15 points) or Peru (14) can put together a grandstand finish.

The basic recipe for booking a place in Russia is simple — win your home games. With 31 home victories to 15 away, this by South American standards has been a successful campaign for travelling teams. A ratio of around three home wins for every away one is more normal.

But the point remains: This is a continent where home advantage counts. It is hardly surprising given the extensive distances to be travelled and the climatic differences in temperature and altitude. So those sides that do their homework, and win in front of their own crowd, are well on the way to the World Cup.

Argentina hosts Chile on Thursday in what could be one of the more decisive ties in this World Cup qualifying campaign.

Ecuador, strong at the altitude of Quito, have home games ahead against Colombia, Peru and Argentina. Chile have still to host Venezuela, Paraguay and Ecuador. A trio of wins would lift both sides up to the magic number of 29.

The case of Argentina is more interesting. They are strong favourites to collect maximum points from their home games against Chile, Venezuela and Peru — though the first, this Thursday’s match against the Chileans, takes on the aspect of a crunch tie.

Three home wins would take them up to 28 points — which, this time round, may still leave them needing something from their travels. And their remaining away matches are very tricky. Next Tuesday they play at extreme altitude against Bolivia, and they follow that early next season with the short trip to face the dangerous Uruguayans before returning to altitude for what could be a dramatic last round against Ecuador.

A point behind them, Colombia are obliged to pick up points from their away games, especially as their home matches include the visit of the all-conquering Brazilians.

As ever, the level of competition and the complexity of possible outcomes will ensure that the campaign stays live all the way to the final whistle, with fans clutching a calculator in one hand and the phone number of the cardiologist in the other.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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