BUENOS AIRES: Colombia could be without striker Radamel Falcao when they try to edge closer to ending a 16-year absence from the World Cup finals with a home victory over Ecuador in Barranquilla Friday.
Falcao, Colombia’s top scorer in the qualifiers with seven goals, suffered an ankle injury playing for Monaco Sunday and has been unable to train normally, with coach Jose Pekerman set to wait until the last minute hoping he will be fit.
“We’re going to go day by day trying to get him as fit as possible to see if he can get to the match,” team doctor Carlos Ulloa told reporters.
If Falcao does not make it, Jackson Martinez is likely to be Teofilo Gutierrez’s partner up front against the Ecuadoreans.
Colombia have won their last four home matches, scoring 13 goals and conceding none. They can join Pekerman’s home country Argentina, who have a bye, at the top of the South American group on 26 points.
Defeat for Ecuador, who make the trip north to the Caribbean port city mourning the recent death of Christian Benitez and missing suspended striker Felipe Caicedo, would leave them five points behind the leaders.
Ecuador could drop to fourth behind Chile, who also have 21 points and are at home to sixth-placed Venezuela in Santiago Saturday.
The top four teams at the end of the qualifiers in October will go through to the 2014 Brazil finals. The fifth-placed side, at present Uruguay with 16 points, go into a playoff against an Asian qualifier in November for one more berth.
Uruguay, semifinalists in South Africa in 2010 after scraping into the tournament at the last gasp, face two key matches, away to seventh-placed Peru in Lima Friday before hosting Colombia in Montevideo next Tuesday.
“The two matches will be very tough. Peru will be dealing their last card against Uruguay and they are at home,” Uruguay’s captain Diego Lugano told reporters earlier this week.
“Then we receive Colombia, who with Argentina are the two teams playing the best football in the Americas. In these eight days we’ll be playing for our passage to the World Cup.”
Coach Oscar Tabarez’s squad faced the abyss in March after a dismal run in which they had picked up only two points from six matches and plunged down the standings.
A 1-0 away win over Venezuela in their last qualifier in June revived the South American champions, who went on to enjoy improved form at the Confederations Cup in Brazil.
“We were very surprised by what happened to us. Things were progressing normally but between September and October  we plunged, conceded lots of goals and it was hard to get out of that,” Tabarez said after the win in Venezuela.
“If we’d lost [to Venezuela], it was all over, but we won and managed to recover many things that make up this group [of players], our team spirit, our intensity in defense, our commitment,” said the former teacher, known as Master.
“We haven’t achieved anything yet, but we’ve dashed the belief that this group was finished, that it was the end of a cycle.
“Now with the spirit we showed against Venezuela we’re going to face our remaining matches,” said Tabarez, whose strikers Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez jointly hold a record 36 Uruguay goals after the 4-2 friendly win away to Japan last month.
“If we win in Lima against Peru, we will have taken a giant step.”
Venezuela, equal on points with Uruguay, will hope they have overcome a stomach bug that laid most of their squad low as they bid to revive their chances against a Chile team that put their campaign back on track with two successive wins in June.
Bottom-team Paraguay, virtually resigned to failing to reach their fifth successive finals, will put last month’s improved form under new coach Victor Genes when they held Germany 3-3 in Kaiserslautern to the test at home to Bolivia in Asuncion. Paraguay are eight points shy of fifth place with four matches to go and Bolivia six points adrift with three games to go.