Ecuador is one win away from returning to the World Cup after a 1-1 home draw with South American qualifying leader Brazil.
Coach Gustavo Alfaro’s team will qualify to play in Qatar if it beats Peru next week.
Chile, once a force in the region, saw its chances shrink dramatically after a 2-1 home loss to second-place Argentina. The Chileans will have to pull good results at Bolivia and Brazil, with their last match in the competition likely to be in Santiago against bitter rival Uruguay.
Uruguay rose back to contention after a 1-0 win at Paraguay, with a goal by veteran Luis Suarez. It was the team’s first win for new coach Diego Alonso, who took over after veteran Oscar Tabarez was fired due to poor results.
Brazil (36 points) and Argentina (32) have already qualified for the World Cup. Ecuador has 24 points, five ahead of Uruguay.
Colombia and Peru, which will clash in Barranquilla, Colombia, on Friday, are at 17 points. Chile has 16 and could be overtaken by Bolivia (15), which will travel to Venezuela – the only team in the region out of contention for a spot.
South America has four direct World Cup spots, and the fifth-place team will play an international playoff for a berth.
ECUADOR 1, BRAZIL 1
Ecuador drew at home against Brazil to boost its chances of qualifying in a game that saw two players sent off and a number of major refereeing decisions overturned by video review.
Casemiro opened the scoring by tapping into an empty net in the sixth minute for Brazil – which has already qualified for the World Cup in Qatar – before Ecuador equalized in the 75th minute with a header by Felix Torres.
But it was Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan who drew the most attention by getting a series of key decisions overturned after VAR — with Brazil goalkeeper Alisson being shown a red card twice only to have both rescinded.
Roldan did not even whistle for a foul when Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez planted his studs into the neck of Brazil striker Matheus Cunha as he challenged for a ball at the edge of the area in the 16th minute. After a VAR review, Dominguez was handed a straight red card.
Brazil defender Emerson Royal was then handed a second yellow in the 20th minute and Alisson appeared to become the third player sent off 10 minutes later after also hitting an opponent in the head with his leg after a clearance. However, Roldan changed his mind and only showed a yellow card after VAR stepped in.
The second half had a similar theme as the Colombian referee awarded two penalties to Ecuador only to reverse both decisions after a review. The second penalty was in injury time and involved Alisson getting a second yellow, which was also rescinded.
“I was sent off playing for Liverpool, I touched the ball outside the penalty box,” Alisson said.
“In situations like that you should not complain, you should accept the referee’s decision. I am happy there’s VAR now. If we didn’t, we would be penalized unfairly for these situations. In both moments I only went for the ball. And I touched the ball, that is clear.”
Brazil was playing without injured star Neymar.
ARGENTINA 2, CHILE 1
“The best player in the world did not come, our coach didn’t come, we had COVID cases, spent hours at the airport … and we won,” Argentina winger Angel di Maria said after the victory in Chile, He could have said more; the game was played at about 2,300 meters (1.4 miles) above sea level.
Lionel Messi is recovering from COVID-19 and did not play. But the veteran di Maria was on fire during the first half. He scored the opening goal in the ninth minute with a rocket from the edge of the box, making the Chileans even more tense about missing out on Qatar.
Chile leveled the scoring 11 minutes later with a header by English-Chilean striker Ben Brereton, who softly put the ball where goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez could not reach.
Lautaro Martinez netted the winner for Argentina in the 34th minute, calmly putting it into the back of the net after Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo failed to stop a shot by Rodrigo de Paul.
Argentina was less intense in the second half, but Chile failed to score in the several opportunities it created.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni did not travel to Chile because he was still testing positive for the coronavirus. Two assistant coaches, Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala, led the team for the match in Calama.