Luis Suarez believes the momentum is with Uruguay as the South Americans look to edge closer to World Cup qualification with a daunting tie away to rivals Ecuador in the thin air of Quito on Friday.
With Argentina already assured of their place at next year’s finals in Brazil following their thrashing of Paraguay last month, attention turns to the nip-and-tuck battle for the three remaining automatic qualifying places in South America.
Uruguay are currently outside the automatic qualifying spots in fifth place, meaning they would face a two-legged play-off against Asian minnows Jordan next month if they fail to secure a top-four finish.
But Uruguay are level on 22 points with fourth-placed Ecuador and would wrest the initiative away from their rivals with a win at the Atahualpa Olympic Stadium heading into next week’s final round of qualifiers.
Friday’s crunch clash is a repeat of the 2009 classic between the two sides which saw Uruguay snatch a dramatic 2-1 victory in Quito, wrecking Ecuador’s hopes of securing a play-off place for the 2010 World Cup.
Liverpool striker Suarez has played a key part in helping to transform Uruguay’s qualifying campaign, which sees them head into Friday’s match buzzing with confidence on the back of three consecutive wins over Venezuela, Peru and Colombia.
Suarez scored an equalizer at the Atahualpa four years ago when the Uruguayans grabbed their vital victory – and the controversial striker believes the two-time winners are ready to repeat the feat on Friday.
“We’ve won our last three games well and we’re in good shape,” Suarez told reporters as Uruguay departed for Quito, where the challenge of playing at altitude, some 2 800 metres above sea level, has often unhinged so many sides.
“We have to be smart and control the tempo, and not play so fast because they are much more used to playing at altitude,” Suarez added.
“Playing in Quito is difficult and we are aware of what is at stake. We can’t afford to be complacent. We’re winning and doing things well but we can’t take anything for granted.”
Uruguay captain Diego Lugano said that while a point would guarantee Uruguay at least a play-off place, the two-time winners were setting their sights on maximum points.
“A win can lead us to Brazil directly,” said Lugano, who plays for in-form English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion. “Going for the win must be our mentality.
“Physically it is going to be hard so we have to play a smart and effective game,” Lugano added.
A defeat for Uruguay on Friday would all but guarantee Ecuador a place in the finals, and leave sixth-placed Venezuela, who have 19 points, in with a chance of pipping them to the play-off place if they can beat already-eliminated Paraguay in their final match in San Cristobal.
A Uruguay defeat and a Venezuela win could leave the Uruguayans in the uncomfortable position of needing a positive result against Argentina in Montevideo next Tuesday to be sure of holding onto fifth place.
Elsewhere on Friday, Colombia will be hoping to secure their first World Cup appearance since 1998 when they host Chile in Barranquilla.
The Colombians, with 26 points, have won their last five matches in Barranquilla, and need only a point against Chile to reach the finals in Brazil.
Chile, who are two points adrift of Colombia, would secure automatic qualification with a win over the Colombians.