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Sports: Focus on Brazil's Vinícius Júnior, Argentina's Dybala

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SAO PAULO (AP) — With World Cup spots secured, Brazil and Argentina appear set to test players in qualifying who are beloved by fans while trying to prove themselves with national teams.

  Focus on Brazil's Vinícius Júnior, Argentina's Dybala © Provided by The Canadian Press

Vinícius Júnior has not scored in his first nine appearances for Brazil and Paulo Dybala has two goals in 31 games for Argentina. Vinícius Júnior is expected to replace Neymar for the Selecao against Ecuador and Dybala is likely to take the field in place of Lionel Messi against Chile.

Four South American nations qualify for this fall’s tournament in Qatar and fifth places advances to a playoff against an Asian opponent, leaving two automatic berths still in contention. Only last-place Venezuela, with seven points, is out of contention.

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Brazil leads with 35 points, followed by Argentina (29), Ecuador (23), Colombia, Peru (17), Chile, Uruguay (16) and Bolivia (15). The contenders each have four games remaining.

Brazil leads with 35 points, followed by Argentina (29), Ecuador (23), Colombia, Peru (17), Chile, Uruguay (16) and Bolivia (15). The contenders each have four games remaining.

ECUADOR vs. BRAZIL

Vinicius Junior's top form at Real Madrid has drawn criticism at home for Brazil coach Tite, accused of not giving the 21-year-old enough time to show his dribbling skills and quick passes. Some allege the coach has difficulties to innovate and test rising players in new roles.

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Midfielder Casemiro, who plays with Vinicius at Madrid, agrees with his national team boss on not rushing the youngster.

“He has been exceptional, I see him every day. I saw him grow at the club," Casemiro said. “With the national team there is a different style of playing, another period to adapt. The competition is different. The quicker he adapts, the better. But we can't forget he is just 21 years old.”

Ecuador, coached by Argentinian coach Gustavo Alfaro, should clinch with four points from its remaining games.

CHILE vs. ARGENTINA

Under coach Lionel Scaloni, Argentina won last year's Copa America.

Following decent form at Juventus, the 28-year-old Dybala is expected to replace Messi in a match played at nearly 7,900 feet (2,400 meters) at Calama, in northern Chile's Atacama Desert.

Dybala also started for Argentina in November's 1-0 qualifying win at Uruguay, when Messi was recovering from a knee injury and entered in the second half.

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Despite Argentina's early qualification to the World Cup, goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez said he and his teammates “are still hungry” and “not relaxed."

“We want to continue uniting as a team and as a group. We have to give our best to be in the final list,” he said. “We will try to win every match or play them as if they were our last. People have to see the best version of us in this World Cup year and we want to reach that goal.”

Messi will miss these games while regaining fitness following a positive COVID-19 test last month.

“We don't have (Arturo) Vidal and we have to win. If our opponent doesn't have Messi, we have to beat them too,” Chile coach Martín Lasarte said Tuesday.

No. 7 Uruguay will need a win at ninth-place Paraguay on Thursday to climb back to a qualifying position and to start strong under coach Diego Alonso, who took over after Óscar Tabárez was fired.

Fourth-place Colombia will host No. 5 Peru, and Bolivia will play at Venezuela.

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Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press

Ecuador draws Brazil and nears WCup; Argentina sinks Chile .
SAO PAULO (AP) — Ecuador is one win away from returning to the World Cup after a 1-1 home draw with South American qualifying leader Brazil on Thursday. 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 Suárez.

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