Brazil will look to take another step closer to qualification for the 2018 World Cup when they take on Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday, in a battle at the top of the table.
The five-time World Cup winners are comfortably placed at the top of CONMEBOL’s qualification table, and it appears to be case of when, not if, as far as booking a place in Russia next summer goes.
With Uruguay hovering just below them in second place, Brazil will certainly not be taking the three points as a given, but after a slow start to the campaign, there is reason for optimism.
Almost a year to the day since Brazil threw away a two goal lead to draw 2-2 in Recife in the corresponding fixture, the Seleção head into this clash as an entirely different entity.
Indeed, the dark days of former coach Dunga’s regime seem like a distant memory, with new man Tite overseeing a turnaround in results. Since Dunga was dismissed after a shambolic showing at the Copa America Centenario, Brazil have swatted aside all before them, with a 3-0 victory over bitter rivals Argentina the pick of six wins on the bounce. In that time, they have only conceded once, whilst registering an impressive 17 goals.
It has been more of a change in mentality rather than personnel for Tite, but the former Corinthians boss has not been afraid to blood some of the young guns, who in turn have not let him down. However, the coach will be without teenage striker Gabriel Jesus, who has made a flying start to his international career but misses out with a metatarsal injury.
Somewhat surprisingly, Brazil have few other viable options for the centre-forward spot, and it is a headache Tite could have done without.
For Uruguay, a third consecutive World Cup appearance is in touching distance and a victory would pull them even further away from the fifth-place play-off spot.
Unlike their opponents, La Celeste got off to a strong start in qualification and can rightly be proud of their performances so far.
However, they are likely to still be reeling from defeat last time out to an out-of-sorts Chile, particularly after letting an early lead slip to fall to a 3-1 loss.
In veteran coach Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay have the experience and tactical nous to put a stop to Brazil’s rampaging form, but will have to do so without talisman Luis Suarez.
Not for the first time in his international career, the Barcelona forward is suspended, but whilst few would argue that the former Liverpool star is anything but world class, his loss may not be felt as painfully for Uruguay as Gabriel Jesus’ is for Brazil.
Uruguay have a wealth of attacking options, but will need to be firing on all cylinders if they are to penetrate a Brazilian defence that has only conceded nine goals.
With only Thursday’s opponents scoring more and conceding less in this campaign, this Uruguay squad has the potential to trouble Brazil, and will be looking for a confident performance to take them into their trip to Peru next week.
Should Brazil leave the pitch with victory on Thursday, they can all but begin booking flights to Moscow, whilst defeat for Uruguay exposes them to the chasing pack once again.
Injuries and suspensions
Uruguay must do without star man Suarez, but perhaps equally as important, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera is also serving a ban and will be unable to feature.
On the injury front, La Celeste have a clean bill of health, but midfielder Jonathan Urretaviscaya and defender Alejandro Silva could be in line for international debuts.
For Brazil, Gabriel Jesus’ phenomenal start to his international career has ground to a halt with a metatarsal injury, and Tite has surprised more than a few observers by calling up Sport attacking midfielder Diego Souza.
Meanwhile, Bayern Munich star Douglas Costa has been ruled out with a knee injury. It has allowed former Juventus midfielder Diego, who has enjoyed something of a career renaissance at Flamengo, to be drafted in for the first time since 2013.
Key man – Uruguay – Edinson Cavani
The Paris Saint-Germain striker can be an infuriating footballer, with undoubted ability but a tendency to go missing in big games. They don’t come bigger than a tie against Brazil at the Estadio Centenario, and Uruguay will be relying on Cavani to fill the void left by Suarez and show his class up front.
Top scorer so far in qualification, the ex-Napoli hitman knows how to hit the back of the net, but it could be a case of which Cavani turns up on the day.
Key man – Brazil – Miranda
Blessed with a cool head and solid reading of the game, Inter centre-back Miranda has become a key figure in Brazil’s defence under Tite. Keeping former captain Thiago Silva out of the team with his form, Miranda has formed a strong partnership with Marquinhos to ensure Brazil enjoy the best defensive record in the competition.