Argentina have secured a spot, and Colombia will join them if they can take a point from their two remaining fixtures, at home to Chile and away to bottom-of-the-group Paraguay.
Chile, with the hard-pressing approach of the Marcelo Bielsa era continued by Jorge Sampaoli, will make it with a win in Colombia or at home to Ecuador. If they lose that first game, a draw against Ecuador would almost be enough, providing Ecuador have not beaten Uruguay – and almost certainly even if they have.
The key game, though, and not for the first time, is tonight’s meeting between Ecuador and Uruguay in Quito, at a dizzying altitude of 2,800 metres.
At the beginning of June, Ecuador seemed comfortable, while Uruguay, having failed to win a competitive game in nine months, were struggling desperately. But then Ecuador lost in Peru and drew against Argentina and Uruguay began their upswing with a tenacious victory away to Venezuela.
A month later, the Ecuador forward Chucho Benitez suffered a fatal heart attack, and with the team clearly struggling to come to terms with his loss, they have taken just one point from two games since.
Uruguay, meanwhile, fought to a 2-1 win in Peru and then beat Colombia 2-0 to pull level on points with Ecuador in the fourth, and last, automatic qualification spot.
“Playing in Quito is difficult and we are aware that they have a lot at stake,” said the forward Luis Suarez. “We cannot be complacent, we are realistic. We have been winning and doing things right, but we cannot rely on anything. A couple of months ago, we were resigned to the play-offs, now all we want, based on the good results, is qualifying outright. We know we have the team to push through qualifying to reach the World Cup.”
This is the fourth World Cup campaign in a row in which Conmebol qualifying has come down to Quito.
Ecuador drew 1-1 with Uruguay there in 2001 to qualify for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. In 2005, they played a scoreless draw that saw Ecuador through and ensured that Uruguay made the play-offs. Three years ago, Diego Forlan converted a last-minute penalty to book Uruguay’s place in Japan.
Venezuela’s faltering form means that, barring something extraordinary, the worst either side will do is finish fifth and face a play-off against Jordan.
But with the momentum behind Uruguay, and Argentina to come in their final game, Uruguay will be keen to get the job done tonight.