Gregory Sica
Thursday September 11th, 2008

We're nearly halfway through the marathon campaign of South American qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and the past week of action has been one of the more wild and unpredictable so far. Here are five things we've learned after seeing all 10 countries in action:

Brazil is in much bigger trouble than anyone realizes. The Seleção failed to overcome last-place Bolivia on Wednesday -- at home in Rio de Janeiro -- and the criticism of head coach Dunga has begun anew. Brazil's emphatic 3-0 victory over Chile in Santiago on Sunday suggested the team was back to its best, and would cruise past Bolivia without any difficulty. That wasn't the case, as Brazil struggled on offense and failed to break down the most vulnerable team in South America.

The worst thing about Brazil's performance was that it had to settle for a frustrating scoreless draw against a side that played with 10 men for almost an entire half. The sad truth is this: The days of the Joga Bonito are long gone and, although Brazil continues to produce world-class players, the national team just doesn't function properly. Ronaldinho, in particular, continues to be nonexistent.

Brazil completely dominated Bolivia in one of the most one-sided matches of the round, but it lacked any sort of creativity when moving forward and paid the consequences.

Much of the blame should be directed towards Dunga. After Brazil's lop-sided win on Sunday, he should have exploited Bolivia's defensive frailties by selecting a much more attack-minded team. But despite its territorial domination, Brazil could barely manufacture a shot on goal in the entire 90 minutes.

How long will Dunga wait before giving Amauri of Juventus his first international cap? And where's Inter Milan star Mancini? The bottom line is that Brazil needs dramatic changes immediately, and if the federation waits for Dunga's eventual "resignation," it could severely dent Brazil's chances of qualifying for the World Cup.

Dunga isn't the only coach feeling the heat. According to reports from Argentina, Alfio Basile could be out of a job by the end of the week. Argentina had to settle for a frustrating 1-1 draw with Peru on Wednesday after conceding an injury-time equalizer, and La Albiceleste has now failed to win a single match in its last five World Cup qualifiers, including home draws with Paraguay and Ecuador.

With the overwhelming amount of quality in its squad, Argentina should be easing past its opponents, but has looked extremely ordinary in recent outings, and its players just don't seem to gel. After claiming Olympic gold (with a large part of its senior team), most expected Argentina to translate that good work to the qualifiers.

But it's been a completely different story. Under Basile's regime, extraordinary players like Lionel Messi, Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tévez have failed to impress, and many blame the style of play utilized by the coach as the reason. Is it time for Olympic coach Sergio Batista to take over the senior team?

Paraguay deserves its spot as top team in the region. Gerardo Martino's side dispatched Venezuela with relative ease on Tuesday, and leads the qualification zone by a massive five points. With only one loss in eight matches, the Paraguayans have demonstrated that they're worthy of bigger things, and could well be a force as they close in on their fourth successive World Cup.

La Albirroja has enormous depth in all aspects of its game, and seems more than capable of winning the group. For years, Paraguay has threatened to overtake Brazil and Argentina as the leading nation of the continent, and although that has seemed mostly impossible until now, it's finally real. What's most surprising, perhaps, is that Paraguay boasts arguably the best attack as well. With Roque Santa Cruz, Salvador Cabañas, Óscar Cardozo and Nelson Haedo Valdez, it's no wonder Paraguay has scored a competition-high 16 goals.

Uruguay and Chile are still extremely unpredictable. After a round of upsets and surprising results, things are as tight as ever. Six teams are separated by only four points: Brazil, Argentina and Chile are tied for second place with 13 and Uruguay is on their heels with 12, followed by Colombia (10) and Ecuador (nine).

Uruguay had a huge opportunity to break away from the pack, but could only manage a scoreless draw against Ecuador at Montevideo's Centenario and now sits in fifth place. The Uruguayans proved superior to their opponents, and although they pressed throughout large part of the 90 minutes, they couldn't manage to break down the rock-solid Ecuadorian defense.

After its miraculous win over Colombia in Bogotá on Saturday, Uruguay was expected to brush Ecuador aside, but it failed to find its feet and dropped points at home for the third time in the qualifiers. With the emergence of great talents like Cristian "Cebolla" Rodríguez, Sebastián Eguren, Martín Cáceres and Luis Suárez (all of whom ply their trade with top European clubs), much more is expected from La Celeste.

Meanwhile, Chile picked up six valuable points in road trips to Bolivia and Venezuela in August, and came into Sunday's clash with Brazil in Santiago with high spirits. But Marcelo Bielsa's side put on a horrible display and was ripped apart by a dominant Brazil. Then on Wednesday, just when it seemed its morale had been run into the ground, La Roja rebounded with an emphatic 4-0 victory over Colombia.

This has been the Chileans' story of the qualifiers so far: They've demonstrated that they're more than capable of playing good soccer, but they've still shown there's a lot to be desired. If they're serious about making their first World Cup in 12 years, consistency is key.

Home-field advantage isn't a factor anymore. In the past, South America's top teams would win home matches easily (particularly because of the intensity in the terraces). The likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay would never drop points at home, and the lesser teams would also prove tough nuts to crack on their home turf.

In this edition of the qualifiers, however, home-field advantage has had little influence on the outcomes of matches. As we saw on Wednesday, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru failed to win at home, despite the encouragement of their fans. Until now, the only team with a perfect record at home has been first-place Paraguay.

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