By Michael Place
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug. 28 (Xinhua) -- While Brazil have already secured their place at next year's World Cup in Russia, the battle for South America's other direct qualification berths remains wide open as the continent braces for another double header round of qualifiers.
Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay are all vying for the three remaining automatic qualification slots with four fixtures left in the CONMEBOL tournament.
Having already pocketed 33 points from 14 matches, Brazil coach Tite can now afford to experiment with his squad for the team's remaining qualifiers against Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Chile.
Colombia are the next-best placed team with 24 points from 14 matches. Jose Pekerman's outfit will be without influential midfielder James Rodriguez for Thursday's away clash against Venezuela but the 26-year-old is expected to be available for the duel against Brazil in Barranquilla five days later.
Victories in both matches would all but guarantee the Cafeteros a berth in their second consecutive World Cup.
A point behind Colombia are Uruguay and Chile. The Celeste will be without injured striker Luis Suarez for the clashes with Argentina and Paraguay, meaning their attacking plans will rest largely on the shoulders of Paris Saint-Germain forward Edinson Cavani.
Chile have struggled to recapture the form that took them to back-to-back Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016. But the Roja should take a significant step towards qualifying by defeating Paraguay at home on Thursday and Bolivia away on Tuesday week.
Arguably no team is facing greater expectation to perform than Lionel Messi's Argentina, who are a point behind Uruguay and Chile in fifth place.
The Albiceleste will be managed by Jorge Sampaoli for the first time in a competitive fixture and the pressure on the former Chile boss to succeed will be immediate.
Failure to win both of their upcoming matches against Uruguay and Peru will leave the two-time world champions in grave danger of missing football's showpiece tournament for the first time since 1970.
It could also shape Messi's legacy, with many believing the Barcelona forward needs to win the World Cup to be considered among the greatest players in history.
One of the major disappointments of the CONMEBOL campaign so far has been Ecuador. After a flying start to the qualifying rounds, Gustavo Quinteros' team have won just two of their past eight matches.
They face a daunting task to overcame Brazil away from home on Thursday before a home clash against Peru five days later.
The sense of urgency is even greater for Peru and Paraguay who, with 18 points apiece, can still mathematically qualify, though they will realistically be targeting fifth place, which would secure an intercontinental playoff berth.
Bolivia (10 points) and Venezuela (six points) are out of contention for a World Cup place.