End of the marathon is in sight
Brazil and Paraguay already booked their tickets for the 2010 World Cup, but six other teams are still in the running. There are only two automatic tickets left for South America, and one playoff berth against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF.
The South American World Cup qualifying zone is the most difficult in the world, not only because of the competition on display and the climatic conditions (i.e. playing at high altitude) but also because all 10 teams from the continent have been locked in battle for two years.
With so much at stake, the climax of qualifying promises to be the most exciting of the whole competition. Most of the attention will be attracted by
Here's a rundown of the final two rounds of South American qualifying -- which kick off Saturday and conclude on Oct. 14 -- in order of their predicted finishing position.
Firmly in third place, Chile is a near lock to nail down one of the remaining places, and will advance to the World Cup with a victory over Colombia in Medellín on Saturday. The last time Chile qualified for the World Cup was 12 years ago. Even if the Chileans lose to Colombia, they'll have another opportunity to qualify when they play host to Ecuador in Santiago on Oct. 14.
Ecuador is in confident mood after claiming a 3-1 victory over Bolivia in La Paz last month, and will be inspired by that performance when it takes on Uruguay at the Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa. Ever since it qualified for its first World Cup in '02, the fortunes of Ecuadorian soccer have changed dramatically. Not only has the national team been a very solid unit over the past 10 years, but the country has produced several talented players, with four of its squad members playing for English clubs, including
The fact that last year Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito was the first team from the nation to lift South America's biggest club competition, the Copa Libertadores, further exemplifies Ecuador's improvement. It would be a major shock if Ecuador doesn't represent the continent in South Africa next year.
There's no doubt that all eyes will be glued on Maradona and his new-look Argentina side on Saturday. The two-time world champions have been woeful during the World Cup qualifiers, and could miss out on the finals for the first time since 1970 if they don't pick up positive results against Peru and Uruguay.
Maradona has been forced to make a number of significant changes after Argentina lost its last three qualifiers, including a painful home defeat to archrival Brazil. Fortunately, for the first time since he took the job a year ago, it seems his choices will be solid (The iconic coach has used a total of 78 players since taking over the national team).
When selecting his squad, Maradona excluded several Europe-based players who have underperformed with the national team recently, and to the delight of many, he finally called up Real Madrid scoring machine
Another interesting choice was the addition of Benfica playmaker
But while Argentina seems to have better defensive options than Schiavi (Inter Milan's
The 6-foot-3 Palermo is expected to receive the nod ahead of Higuaín to partner
Regardless of who plays, Argentina needs to find an effective game plan that guarantees results.
A loss to Ecuador in Quito will put an abrupt end to Uruguay's World Cup hopes --
With the number of world-class players in the squad, Uruguay should be in a much higher position. But as has been the case over the years, its players have underperformed for the national team. With
Nevertheless, Uruguay has a decent away record, and has the necessary firepower to upset Ecuador. If it achieves a good result in Quito, it will be favored to beat Argentina in Montevideo, and could possibly qualify directly for the World Cup.
Unfortunately for Venezuela, it will be up against Brazil and Paraguay, respectively, in its final two qualifiers. That may be too difficult of a task for
Like Venezuela, Colombia has minimal chances of reaching South Africa, not only because of its position on the table, but because it faces complicated opposition in its final two games. With Chile and Paraguay on the schedule, Colombia is up against two extremely difficult teams, and unless it pulls off two massive results, it will be out of the running. Defeat to Uruguay in Montevideo last month all but ended the Colombians' World Cup aspirations.