World Cup 2014 Outlook: South America
Nations eliminated: None.
Nations alive (FIFA ranking): Argentina (3), Colombia (7), Ecuador (10), Uruguay (19), Chile (25), Peru (30), Venezuela (37), Paraguay (44), Bolivia (53).
Nations qualified (FIFA ranking): Brazil (22).
The top four nations after every nation plays 16 matches (each team home and away) automatically qualify for the World Cup.
The fifth-place nation will play a two-legged playoff with the fifth-placed team from Asia for one World Cup berth.
1. Argentina. The clear favorites to top the group (with host nation Brazil automatically in) are guaranteed of at least the two-legged playoff after a 1-1 draw with Ecuador on Tuesday. It will likely wrap up its berth in September, and while the headline news is that Lionel Messi is finally showing signs of his Barcelona form in a national team shirt -- he has scored eight goals in qualifying so far -- behind him the team suffers from "Messi-dependence." the same issue that afflicted La Liga champion Barcelona this season. "Argentina thinks having the best player in the world is enough to win the World Cup," warned Federico Bassahun, editor of Argentine magazine Don Julio. "You could call it 'Maradona Syndrome,' but the fact is, Messi is Argentina's Plan A, B, C and D." On Friday against Colombia, Messi started on the bench and Angel di Maria played in his roving role. Even with Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain as a supporting cast, Argentina could not break down Colombia and the game ended goalless. Argentina looks one of the best around with Messi in the side -- but if he's not 100 percent fit 12 months from now, it might be a different story.
2. Uruguay. What has happened to the nation that finished third at the 2010 World Cup and won the 2011 Copa America? It was many experts' outside tip for success in Brazil 2014 -- but on current form Uruguay may not qualify for the competition. It moved from seventh to fifth in the nine-team table with a crucial 1-0 win over Venezuela on Tuesday and must make up five points to reach the top four and automatic qualification. That should be possible, you may think, but Uruguay lost five straight before Tuesday, a run that included a 4-0 loss to Colombia, 3-0 to Argentina, 4-1 to Bolivia and 2-0 to Chile (which it beat 4-0 18 months ago). Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is under pressure to freshen up the team but has persisted with the likes of Diego Forlan and Diego Lugano, despite the calls to give more chances to Abel Hernandez and Gaston Ramirez. He has also struggled to get the best out of Edinson Cavani, the top player in Serie A last season: only three goals in qualifying has left the scoring burden to Luis Suarez (eight goals). Some tough fixtures lie ahead: at Peru and Ecuador, home to Colombia and Argentina.
3. Colombia. Is it the dark horse? Colombia could be a decent outside bet, though that that prospect looked unlikely after Matchday One, a 2-1 loss to Argentina which resulted in coach Leonel Alvarez losing his job. In came Jose Pekerman, former Argentina coach, and the man who has overseen the revival and turned Colombia into a team to fear. With attacking fullbacks in Juan Zuniga and Pablo Armero, Fredy Guarin and James Rodriguez in midfield and one of Teo Gutierrez or Jackson Martinez (and maybe rising star Luis Muriel ready next year) alongside Radamel Falcao up front, goals are not a problem: only Argentina has scored more. Significantly, Pekerman has been working on his team's mentality, and it looks more confident, has an attacking identity and, as it showed against Argentina last Friday, is no longer cowed by big-name opponents. Colombia is second in the group and will be a team to avoid in Brazil.
Ecuador. Ecuador's defeat on Friday in Peru, the first time it has lost against that opposition in 36 years, has taken some gloss off an excellent campaign so far. Ecuador enjoyed its only World Cup appearances in 2002 and 2006 but might be back next year thanks to a mainly local-based squad - Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa and Felipe Caicedo are the only three Europe-based starters in the side - and a Colombian coach, Reinaldo Rueda. The only other World Cup appearances were also under Colombian coaches (Hernan Dario Gomez in 2002, Luis Fernando Suarez in 2006) and the Ecuadorean FA is hoping Rueda will complete the hat-trick. Some tough fixtures lie ahead - Argentina home and Colombia away are the next two - but it should have enough of a cushion on Venezuela to claim fourth spot. Ecuador is ranked at an all-time tenth in the rankings and will have to shed the Cinderella tag soon enough.
Argentina and Colombia seem certain to make it to Brazil 2014, and the intrigue for the remaining four Matchdays is to see who will join them. Ecuador and Chile have the best chances to lock up the last two automatic berths. Behind them, Venezuela is bidding for a first World Cup spot but is under threat from Peru and Uruguay, who both have a game in hand. Uruguay needs to heed the lesson of Paraguay, which pushed Spain close at the 2010 World Cup and reached the 2011 Copa America final, but is rock bottom of the group after failing to freshen up the squad. If Tabarez makes the same mistake, Uruguay could miss out as well. It will be a close race to the final Matchday on Oct. 15.
Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador to qualify for the 2014 World Cup; Uruguay to finish fifth and win the playoff against an Asian side to sneak into Brazil as well.