A pair of top four contenders meet in Barranquilla on Thursday, as Colombia clash with Ecuador in World Cup qualifying.
Following two goalless draws during the current international period, the hosts at Estadio Metropolitano will seek a win that would take them above their visitors in the tightly-packed table.
Despite winning only three matches in the ultra-competitive South American section of World Cup qualifying to date, Colombia remain contenders to claim one of the top four places which assure a ticket to Qatar next year, as they sit fifth in the standings before their final game of this month.
While such a finish would ultimately be enough for a playoff place, several nations trail Los Cafeteros by just a handful of points, so they will want to turn draws – of which they have had six from 11 fixtures – into wins, starting on Thursday night.
Their latest game to finish all-square, though, came against leaders Brazil at the weekend – a match in which they were starved of possession but held on determinedly for another point on home turf.
That followed a close-fought 0-0 result versus Uruguay last week, and means that Reinaldo Rueda’s side are unbeaten in qualifying since the start of the 2021-22 season.
Therefore, Colombian hopes of reaching a third successive finals remain very much alive, though the pressure is intense for Rueda and company to succeed.
Having steered his squad onto the podium at the Copa America with a third place finish in Brazil, the former Ecuador coach will perhaps encounter his former employers with vengeance in mind. The last time these two bordering nations clashed in qualification, Colombia returned home humiliated after a crushing 6-1 defeat.
Ecuador have endured mixed fortunes in the 11 months since they tore apart the Colombian defence in Quito, when six different scorers put their counterparts to the sword.
For one, they lost their next game against Los Cafeteros, in a Copa America campaign that ended at the quarter-final stage, and have subsequently been beaten in two of their last four qualifiers, including away to Venezuela last time out.
On Sunday, the home side achieved their first victory since last November, when they overturned Enner Valencia’s early strike from the penalty spot to consign Ecuador to a 2-1 defeat.
That setback, however, did not deny La Tri third spot in the group, which they still retain after reaching such giddy heights by securing a 3-0 win over bottom team Bolivia last Friday.
Nevertheless, another loss this week would set nerves jangling inside Gustavo Alfaro’s camp, after the nation’s last qualification campaign ended with a dismal streak of just three points from their final eight fixtures, which cost them a place at the global gathering in Russia.
For that reason, even a draw over the border in Barranquilla would represent a useful result, allowing Ecuador to stay marginally ahead of one of their closest rivals.
Colombia World Cup Qualifying – South America form:
Colombia form (all competitions):
Ecuador World Cup Qualifying – South America form:
Ecuador form (all competitions):
We say: Colombia 2-1 Ecuador
The tables will be turned on Thursday, as Colombia gain a measure of revenge for their thrashing at the hands of Ecuador last November.
Not only will the away side not have the advantage of Quito’s altitude, they have also been hit-and-miss of late, and may run into a home team that belatedly clicks in the final third.