URUGUAY, March 23 – Barcelona team-mates Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez will make a long-awaited return to World Cup duty this week when South America’s marathon qualifying competition for the 2018 finals in Russia resumes.
Suarez has not kicked a ball for Uruguay since he was slapped with a global ban after chomping on the shoulder of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Messi meanwhile missed the opening four matches of Argentina’s 2018 qualifying campaign earlier this season after suffering a knee injury while on club duty for Barcelona in September.
The five-time FIFA World Player of the Year could not be returning at a better time for Argentina, who face a demanding trip to Santiago on Thursday to face reigning champions Chile in a rematch of the Copa America final.
Argentina made a shaky start to qualifying, suffering a shock home defeat against Ecuador in October, before draws against Paraguay and Brazil.
However the 2014 World Cup runners-up breathed life into their campaign with a 1-0 away win against Colombia in November, a crucial victory that lifted them from near the bottom of the table to within striking distance of the automatic qualifying positions.
Messi’s return however has been offset by a wave of injuries that has deprived Argentina coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino of a slew of foreign-based stars, most notably Juventus’s in-form striker Paulo Dybala, Paris Saint-Germain’s Javier Pastore and Benfica’s Nicolas Gaitan.
With Carlos Tevez dropped, Martino has turned to unheralded Argentina-based forward Lanus to bolster his attacking options for Thursday’s clash.
The 28-year-old was a team-mate of Messi’s in the Argentina squad that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics but is yet to win his first full international cap for the two-time World Cup winners.
– Relaxed Suarez –
Argentina will face a Chile side more or less at full strength, with Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal (suspension) the only significant absentee.
Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and Inter Milan’s Gary Medel are all available for newly appointed Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who took over in January following the abrupt resignation of Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentine who masterminded Chile’s Copa America triumph.
Uruguay striker Suarez meanwhile is relishing the prospect of being reunited with his international team-mates for the first time in nearly two years when La Celeste travel to Recife to take on Brazil on Friday.
“Obviously after a long time without seeing them (Uruguay team mates and staff) it will be a strange feeling, but there is also the pleasure of seeing them all again. I haven’t seen them for nearly two years,” Suarez told Spanish newspaper El Pais in a recent interview.
“There is pleasure and satisfaction that (the ban) is all over and now I can enjoy being with them again,” added the 29-year-old, who has scored 37 goals in all competitions for Barcelona this season.
Suarez meanwhile said Uruguay’s solid start to qualifying — three wins in four games — showed that the team were more than a one-man band.
“I am quite calm because these days the national team works as a group, it is not about the individual,” he said.
“I am just going to work together and do my little bit for what Uruguay is doing in these qualifiers. I am not under any pressure, on the contrary I am just there to contribute what I can with my football.”
In other matches this week, Ecuador will be looking to maintain their 100 percent start with victory over Paraguay in Quito on Thursday while Colombia travel to the thin air of La Paz aiming to bounce back from the disappointment of defeat to Argentina in their last outing.
Peru meanwhile will be chasing their second win of the qualifiers when they host Venezuela — bottom of the table after four defeats from four matches — in Lima.