By Rex Gowar
(Reuters) – Five of South America’s leading players will be missing when the continent’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers kick off this week.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Colombia’s James Rodriguez are injured, while Brazil’s Neymar and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are suspended.
That leaves Chile’s Alexis Sanchez as one of the few top talents available and ready to light up their home clash with Brazil in Santiago, the opening round’s big match on Thursday.
Sergio Aguero, who is in fine scoring form for Manchester City, with five goals against Newcastle United last weekend, is expected to lead the Argentina attack at home to Ecuador.
Beside him or ready to spring off the bench for the match at the Monumental in Buenos Aires on Thursday will be Carlos Tevez, who is close to winning another league title with Boca Juniors.
Messi injured his knee the previous weekend playing for Barcelona and was told he would be out for up to eight weeks and could miss four of the 2014 World Cup runners-up’s matches in the marathon 18-round group.
“Messi’s absence must be an incentive and not an excuse,” said his Barcelona team mate Javier Mascherano, who will most likely lead the side.
“We’re going to need more from everyone because we lack the most important player we have, but we’ve missed him before and the team responded well.
“We’re starting a long and hard road which gives you the ticket to the World Cup. It’s going to be important to start with a cushion of points that will give us tranquillity,” he added.
Coach Gerardo Martino is hoping Messi, who also misses the trip to Paraguay next Tuesday, will recover quickly enough to become available for next month’s home match against arch-rivals Brazil and trip to Colombia.
Back in July, Chile lifted the Copa America for the first time in Santiago after Brazil, without the suspended Neymar, went home early following their penalty-shootout defeat to Paraguay in the quarter-finals.
Neymar was sent off in a group match defeat to Colombia and banned for four matches after insulting Chilean referee Enrique Osses.
He has to sit out two of Brazil’s qualifiers, the second one at home to Venezuela next week.
Suarez is still serving a nine-match FIFA ban for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 finals in Brazil.
He missed the Copa America and will not become available again to coach Oscar Tabarez until March after sitting out Thursday’s visit to Bolivia and next week’s home clash with Colombia.
Cavani is serving a two-match ban after being sent off in Uruguay’s quarter-final defeat at the Copa for hitting Chile’s Gonzalo Jara, who had infamously poked his finger up the forward’s backside.
Real Madrid’s Rodriguez has suffered a relapse of a thigh injury and misses Colombia’s home match against Peru on Thursday and Tuesday’s trip to Montevideo.
(Editing by Toby Davis)