Gregory Sica
Wednesday October 8th, 2008

When it comes to World Cup qualifying, nothing compares to the level of excitement on display in South America. For years the quality of the competition has been world-class, and this edition has been no different. As we approach the midway stage of the South American marathon World Cup qualifying campaign, all 10 teams are still alive and vying for a spot in South Africa 2010.

Traditional powers Brazil and Argentina, who have won a combined seven World Cups, have struggled to find consistency so far, mostly because of the quality of the competition they have faced. While Paraguay leads the group in style, several other teams have also demonstrated the determination needed to warrant a World Cup berth.

Here's a brief guide of what we can look forward to in the next two rounds of the 2010 South American World Cup qualifiers.

Argentina is in a must-win situation at home against Uruguay in the latest edition of el clásico rioplatense, a derby that dates back to 1901, when Argentina beat Uruguay 3-2 in Montevideo. Los Albicelestes haven't managed a win in their last five World Cup qualifiers and will be desperate to end the drought against their geographical neighbors on Saturday. The outcome of the match will likely determine Argentina head coach Alfio Basile's fate, as his side hasn't claimed victory in almost a year. With the wealth of talent at Basile's disposal, Argentina should be doing a whole lot better. The pressure leading up to the derby with Uruguay is so intense, Basile announced he won't attend the customary press conference prior to the match because it could affect his health (he suffers from heart problems).

Uruguay, on the other hand, come into the clash undefeated in its last four matches and seems more than capable of upsetting the highly fancied Argentines at El Monumental. Óscar Wáshington Tabárez may counter with a talented squad, but Uruguay has lacked imagination in its midfield in recent World Cup qualifiers, which was particularly noticeable in a frustrating goalless draw with Ecuador in Montevideo last month. Since Álvaro Recoba quit the national team after last year's Copa América semifinal loss to Brazil, Uruguay has not found a suitable replacement. But Tabárez also has other concerns, one of these being that his top goal-scorer, Diego Forlán, will miss both matches due to injury. In-form Sevilla striker Ernesto Chevantón (who scored against Argentina in a 4-2 defeat in a '06 World Cup qualifier) will likely replace Forlán.

Brazil may be in second place and only four points behind group leader Paraguay, but its campaign has been largely disappointing so far. Last month the Seleção picked up a massive 3-0 win over Chile in Santiago, but just a few days later it could only manage a goalless draw with Bolivia at home, despite playing with an extra man for almost the entire second half. It was one of Brazil's worst displays in years. After, further pressure mounted on head coach Carlos Dunga, who has persisted with the same negative defensive tactics, despite heavy criticism. Like Basile, Dunga will be out of a job if Brazil fails to pick up at least four points from its two qualifiers with Venezuela and Colombia.

Dunga has selected a relatively similar squad to the one from last month. Kaká, as well as versatile winger Mancini and his Inter Milan teammate Adriano (who replaces an injured Luís Fabiano) are the most notable additions. On paper, Brazil has a fantastic squad; however, Dunga has yet to fine tune the team. As we approach the halfway stage of the qualifiers, Brazil will not only be expected to pick up positive results, but will need to demonstrate an exciting, attractive brand of soccer to its many fans. Its reputation counts on it.

After several years of hard work, Paraguay has finally become the leading nation on the continent. The highly disciplined Paraguayans have won five of their first eight qualifiers and lead the group in style. Unlike Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, Paraguay has found consistency as well as an effective game plan. Last month La Albirroja held Argentina to a tight 1-1 draw in Buenos Aires without many of its key players, and then made light work of Venezuela in a comfortable 2-0 win in Asunción. Both results highlighted the amount of depth the Paraguayan squad has. Over the years, Paraguay has been characterized by a strong defense, and while this still remains the case, the squad has also improved its attacking a great deal and leads the competition with 16 goals.

Paraguay will hope to move closer toward World Cup qualification when it faces Colombia at El Campín de Bogotá, a venue which stands at 2,650 meters above sea level. Colombia has struggled to make an impact in this edition of the qualifiers, and comes into the clash after a heavy 4-0 defeat to Chile -- a result which led to Jorge Luis Pinto's immediate sacking. New boss Eduardo Lara has brought a number of fresh faces to the squad and expects his team "to play good football, but, above everything, to play their hearts out, for the honor of the (Colombian) shirt." If Lara manages to achieve this, Colombia could come back into the picture.

Argentine strikers Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero have taken Spain's La Liga by storm this season and are confident about bringing that good form to the qualifiers. Los Albicelestes have struggled to find the back of the net in recent outings, and will welcome the return of the ever-dangerous Carlos Tévez, who is back after completing a one-match suspension. If all fails, however, Basile will likely call upon Genoa hitman Diego Milito, who finally made the squad.

Five-time World Champions Brazil will receive a boost when FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká returns. The gifted AC Milan attacking midfielder has missed Brazil's last eight matches after undergoing surgery on a damaged left knee, but is fully fit and will surely solve Brazil's problems in the attacking third. Adriano is another player who could make a difference. "The Emperor" has finally rediscovered his top form with Inter Milan this season and will be looking to return to the national team with a bang.

Other potential stand-out performers include Chileans Humberto Suazo and Alexis Sánchez, prolific Paraguayan striker Salvador Cabañas, as well as exciting Ecuadorian attackers Joffre Guerrón and Luis Bolaños. Meanwhile, Uruguay will need to rely on its back-line during difficult visits to Argentina and Bolivia. Players like team captain Diego Lugano and goalkeeper Juan Castillo could play determining roles.

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