Injured Messi and suspended Neymar are just two of a galaxy of stars who will be missing as the long journey to Russia 2018 begins. Uruguay will be without Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani while Colombia’s James Rodriguez is also injured.
Brazil and Argentina, the two superpowers of South American football, launch their respective qualifying campaigns still smarting from disappointing performances in the Copa America, which saw Chile lift the title on home soil.
Brazil’s Copa America ended in defeat to Paraguay in the quarterfinals, a loss that deepened the sense of gloom surrounding the Selecao, still bearing the scars of their humiliating World Cup exit to Germany in 2014.
Meanwhile, Argentina’s campaign ended in a penalty shoot-out against Chile in the final, shattering Messi and the Albiceleste’s hopes of winning a first major tournament since 1993.
Those twin setbacks provide the sobering backdrop to Thursday’s opening round of fixtures, where Brazil face a daunting trip to Santiago to face Chile while Argentina meet Ecuador in Buenos Aires.
But while Copa America form suggests Chile are favourites, Brazil head into their game with history squarely in their corner.
Brazil have suffered one solitary defeat to Chile during World Cup qualifiers, a 3-0 loss during the campaign to reach the 2002 tournament.
In 14 meetings since that defeat, Brazil have won 12, drawn two, lost none. — AFP