Ecuador vs. Colombia puts CONMEBOL qualifying sides' deficiencies on display
With five rounds of the 18 to go, there are now four separate competitions taking place in CONMEBOL's World Cup qualifying campaign.
Brazil are in a category of their own. Seven consecutive victories have given them a seven-point lead at the top of the table. They are all but mathematically qualified for Russia 2018 and can use the rest of competition to try to ensure that they have not peaked too soon.
At the other end of the scale are Venezuela and Bolivia, down at the foot of the table with no hope of making it through to the main event. As far as they are concerned, the build-up to the 2022 World Cup has already begun. Both have included players from recent South American under-20 championships in their squads.
Paraguay and Peru are still dreaming, clinging to the faith that a strong late run can haul them back into contention. They have very little margin for error and their tasks are complicated by the identity of Tuesday's opponents; Paraguay are away to all-conquering Brazil, while Peru host second-placed Uruguay, who welcome back Luis Suarez after suspension.
Uruguay are the best-placed team in a pack of five that are separated by just three points. They are one point ahead of Argentina (22), who are one point ahead of Colombia (21), who are one point ahead of both Ecuador and Chile (20). Unless Paraguay or Peru can spring a surprise and drag themselves into the dogfight, this group of five is where the interest lies for the rest of the campaign. Three of them will qualify automatically, one will take part in a playoff against opponents from Oceania and the other will miss out altogether.
All of this means that the most interesting game of Tuesday's 14th round is the only meeting between two of these direct rivals: the clash of Ecuador and Colombia in Quito.
Ecuador were the early leaders, blasting off with four straight victories. But the subsequent nine rounds have brought them just eight points.
Their problems are threefold; with an increasing number of players having moved abroad, there are doubts as to whether the altitude of Quito is still such an advantage. They are also dependent on a relatively small group of players and need their star performers to be in good form and fitness. The injuries suffered by winger Jefferson Montero, the loss of confidence of striker Enner Valencia -- all of this has an effect. And even when Ecuador are at full strength, their defensive and goalkeeping resources are fragile.
Colombia have consistently disappointed ever since reaching the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in 2014. The idea then, proclaimed by coach Jose Pekerman, was that this represented the moment when the country would take a definitive place at football's top table. It looked like a justified belief, with James Rodriguez spearheading a talented attacking generation. But subsequently, Colombia have frustrated.
They would seem to have the stars to be capable of better things -- it could even be that the sheer number of players is proving a problem for Pekerman, because it gives him an excess of options. The team that narrowly beat Bolivia 1-0 last Tuesday showed seven changes from the previous game, which showed seven changes from the game before that. Pekerman is looking confused in terms of an idea of play and personnel. Traditionally, the manager has produced attractive passing sides with plenty of midfield possession, but there have been times in the current campaign when they have looked disjointed and overly direct.
The deficiencies of Ecuador and Colombia are representative of the competition as a whole. With the exception of Brazil -- who look to be the best side to come out of South America since Argentina in 2006 -- this would seem to be the continent's poorest collection of sides for several campaigns. Uruguay are aware of their limitations and play effectively within them, always carrying a threat with their strikers. But Argentina are a shambles, almost entirely dependent on flashes from Lionel Messi, and Chile's golden generation may have put their best days behind them.
It is just as well for the South Americans, then, that there is still more than a year to go until the next World Cup -- time for those sides stuck in the dogfight to whip their teams into better shape on the road to Russia.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.