Gregory Sica
Tuesday November 20th, 2007

With dizzying talent at its disposal, most in the soccer world figured Argentina would have no trouble waltzing through South America's World Cup qualifying, which got underway just over a month ago. A spot at South Africa 2010 seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

So far, there's been little reason to worry, as Alfio Basile's side has proven it is a level above the rest and more than capable of playing exciting, attacking soccer. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tévez on its roster, Argentina is in a league of its own when it comes to creativity of the highest order.

That inventiveness was on display in a 3-0 victory over Bolivia in Buenos Aires on Saturday, during which Messi took center stage. The gifted 20-year-old demonstrated why he is considered one of the top two players in the world with an impressive display.

What particularly caught my eye was the manner in which he almost ran through the entire Bolivian defense time and again during the match. He capped off a man-of-the-match performance by assisting Riquelme on Argentina's third goal with another of his trademark runs.

But until now, things have been much too easy for Argentina; it has won all three of its qualifiers, having scored seven goals, while conceding none. While most of its other South American rivals, including Brazil, have struggled, each one of Argentina's victories has been a walk in the park.

Let's be realistic. Despite Argentina's good form, it has yet to be tested. Its three rivals, Chile, Venezuela and Bolivia, came into the qualifiers after extremely poor campaigns in the Copa América, and none of these teams was able to give it a serious test.

But this won't be the case again on Tuesday night when Argentina meets Colombia at El Campín de Bogotá. Basile's side won't only be up against the high altitude (8,660 feet), the intense climate and an intimidating 42,000-capacity crowd, but will confront an in-form Colombian outfit that has yet to taste defeat in qualifying.

Colombia, which thrashed Argentina 5-0 in a World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires in 1993, has demonstrated its fighting spirit in all three of its matches so far. It held Brazil to a scoreless draw in its opening qualifier last month, picked up a vital point against Bolivia in La Paz and, on Saturday, edged Venezuela 1-0 in a tight contest.

Colombia manager Jorge Luis Pinto has assembled a very solid side which constantly pressures its opponents throughout the 90 minutes. It almost completely dominated Venezuela in its last match, but despite needing a late Rubén Darío Bustos free kick to win the three points, it proved it's very dangerous on offense.

"We will play our match against Argentina with other concepts, we will attack like we did against Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela," Pinto stated to the local press. "We have to be very offensive."

The fact that Argentina will finally be put under heavy pressure in the qualifiers means that it has to function properly as a defensive unit in order to escape from Bogotá with at least a point. Much of Argentina's World Cup qualifying fate depends on this match, because its campaign can only get more difficult from here on out.

Next June, when the qualifiers resume after this week's round, Argentina will face the likes of Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. All three of these teams have what it takes to reach the World Cup, and should be very difficult opponents.

Brazil, which held Peru to a 1-1 draw in Lima on Sunday, has been rather inconsistent in the qualifiers so far. Despite a sensational performance as it thrashed Ecuador 5-0 in Rio de Janeiro last month, its away form hasn't been good. Even though it has picked up two draws on the road, Dunga's side hasn't lived up to its full potential.

Still, Argentina should be worried. Last time the teams met, the Brazilians cruised to an easy 3-0 victory in the Copa América final. They've had the upper hand in recent encounters between the fierce rivals, and the fact that they'll will be at home against the Argentines next June makes them the favorites to administer another beating.

Less than a month later, Argentina entertains Paraguay in Buenos Aires in what should be another extremely difficult encounter. The Paraguayans have translated their good work from the last few editions of the qualifiers into this campaign, and seems to have benefited from Gerardo Martino's decision to utilize three strikers in his offense.

After a draw in Peru and a narrow home victory over the Uruguayans last month, Paraguay demonstrated its depth in attack with a stunning 5-1 victory over Ecuador on Saturday. Its deadly strike force of Roque Santa Cruz, Salvador Cabañas and Nelson Haedo Valdez compares to the very best of the world.

Then there's Uruguay, in what will be Argentina's final match of the first round. Each time both teams meet, there are huge expectations. Uruguay's campaign got off to the best possible start, a 5-0 humiliation of Bolivia, but then it lost to Paraguay and was held to a nail-biting 2-2 draw with Chile in Montevideo on Sunday.

Uruguay, which beat Argentina 1-0 the last time the teams met in a qualifier, has experienced a huge transformation in its squad under Oscar Washington Tabárez, and will without doubt challenge the Argentines all the way. One player Argentina must keep an eye on is Benfica attacking midfielder Cristian "Cebolla" Rodríguez, who was brilliant against Chile. He is Uruguay's version of Messi and is also destined for world wide stardom.

Argentina's '10 qualifying campaign may have gotten off to a reasonably good start, but now the hard part begins. Its clash with Colombia will go a long way in determining where it stands and whether it has the necessary fighting spirit to overcome the continent's more difficult teams next year. The talent is definitely there, but will it be enough?

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