RIO DE JANEIRO: Peru, Uruguay and Colombia face a day of reckoning today, needing home wins to stay in touch with the pack in the South American World Cup qualifying group.
Peru take on neighbours and arch-rivals Chile in a high-risk match in Lima, Uruguay host Paraguay in Montevideo and Colombia play Bolivia in Barranquilla.
Leaders and world champions Brazil face a tough trip to Ecuador while Argentina, one point behind in second place, are at home to Venezuela in the other games.
The games are not being held on a FIFA World Cup date but are sandwiched between full programmes of weekend domestic games in Europe and most of South America.
Coaches will have at most one training session with their players, many of whom will arrive from their European clubs on Monday or Tuesday and head straight back across the Atlantic.
The 10-nation South American group has turned into a dogfight with three points separating fourth-placed Ecuador (13 points) from bottom team Bolivia.
In between are Chile and Venezuela (13), Uruguay (11) and Colombia and Peru (10) while ahead of the pack are Brazil (20 points), Argentina (19) and Paraguay (16).
All the teams are still in contention either for a top four finish to guarantee reaching the 2006 World Cup in Germany or fifth place for a playoff against the Oceania region winners.
Peru-Chile matches are always highly charged, featuring references to the Battle of the Pacific between the two nations in the 19th century and invariably preceded by Peruvian wizards performing ancient rituals to bring their side good luck.
But Chile coach Juvenal Olmos has tried to play down the rivalry and his counterpart, Brazilian Paulo Autuori, has urged his players to be patient.
“For me, this is just a football match,” said Olmos.
Autuori said: “We mustn't confuse haste with speed. This is our big problem.
“We have to try and leave our anxiety to one side.”
Peru striker Claudio Pizarro and captain Nolberto Solano face fitness tests but 20-year-old Paolo Guerrero, who has scored five goals in a week for Bayern Munich, is ready to step in if his club-mate Pizarro cannot play.
Chile are without injured strikers Reinaldo Navia and Marcelo Salas.
Feelings will also be running high in Montevideo after Paraguay's players said they were worried about possible rough tactics from their opponents.
Uruguay have dispensed with Juventus striker Marcelo Zalayeta, who played for his club on Sunday and would only have arrived in Montevideo on Monday evening.
Instead, Javier Chevanton and Richard Morales are expected to line up in attack.
Captain Carlos Gamarra returns for Paraguay after missing their last two games with a knee injury but Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz is still sidelined.
Colombia and Bolivia have 10 points and neither can afford to slip up but the Bolivians have lost all their away games so far and Saturday's 1-0 friendly defeat by Guatemala has not improved their confidence.
Brazil are unbeaten but lost 1-0 three years ago on their last visit to Quito, which lies 2,800 metres above sea level.
Argentina, who host Venezuela in Buenos Aires, will be poised to pounce if their arch-rivals stumble again at high altitude.
Coach Jose Pekerman has dropped 20-year-old forward Carlos Tevez following a loss of form for what, in spite of Venezuela's recent improvement, should be a straightforward match. – Reuters