There is a striking coincidence in the fixture list as South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign reaches the halfway stage Thursday. In the ninth round, the top half of the table take on the bottom half. The first five are up against the last five.
The highly competitive nature of the campaign is evidenced by the clash between the team at the top of the table (Uruguay, with 16 points) and the team at the bottom (Venezuela, with two). It has been only four months since these teams met in Philadelphia in the Copa America Centenario. On that occasion, Venezuela won by scoring the only goal of the match and thus ensured their place in the quarterfinals and condemned Uruguay to early elimination.
The circumstances are different this time. Back in June, Uruguay had come all the way across the country from meeting Mexico in Glendale, California, to face the Venezuelans and were grumbling about their travel arrangements. This time, they are at home in a Centenario that should be much more to their liking: Montevideo's legendary Centenario stadium, built for the 1930 World Cup. Also, they have Luis Suarez fit and raring to go. Playing against opponents who are realistically already thinking about the 2022 World Cup, Uruguay are strong favourites, though perhaps not as strong as second-place Brazil, who host eighth-place Bolivia in the northeastern city of Natal.
Brazil have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home. Bolivia have not won an away qualifier for 23 years. As such, it would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of South American football if Brazil do not prevail, especially given the feel-good factor surrounding the recent appointment of coach Tite, by far the most qualified man for the job.
However, Bolivia have a feel-good factor of their own, with an interesting and popular new coach in Angel Guillermo Hoyos. They picked up four points in last month's two rounds - only Brazil did better - though those points are in jeopardy, as opponents Peru and Chile claim that Bolivia's centre-back, Nelson Cabrera, a naturalised Paraguayan who came on as a late substitute in both games, was ineligible. He received Bolivian citizenship after three years, but FIFA rules stipulate that a naturalised player should have lived in his adopted country for five years. Cabrera has not been included in the current squad.Thiago Silva, who was out of favour with previous Brazil coach Dunga, is back in Tite's squad.