Let's assume that Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil are going to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. It seems a fair assumption -- it could well be that from the seven remaining rounds, just two victories will be good enough to get Paraguay over the line, and three plus a draw may well prove sufficient for the continent's traditional two powers.
If our assumption is correct, that only leaves one automatic qualifying place for the other teams -- which, at present, looks to belong to either Chile or Uruguay. On Wednesday, they meet in Santiago in what promises to be the most fascinating match in this midweek 12th round of the marathon campaign.
Chile is three points ahead of Uruguay in the standings. If Chile makes home-field advantage count this week, that lead will be six points with six games to go -- and, on paper, with an easier run-in. Wednesday, then, is the day when Chile has the chance to put one foot on South African soil. A win will give it every right to start making tentative plans for its first appearance in the World Cup since 1998.
The Chileans have a great deal to bring to the party. Under Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, they're as swashbuckling as Errol Flynn, seeking to cut a swathe through their opponents with rapier attacks. They can leave themselves open at the back -- as 3-0 home defeats to Paraguay and Brazil pay witness -- but their bold approach means they win games. So far in this campaign, Chile has registered more victories than either Brazil or Argentina.
Bielsa loves to attack with width. His sides customarily play with two wingers, the value of which was instantly apparent in Sunday's match at Peru. In the second minute, left winger Mark González got to the sideline and curled in a gorgeous deep cross, met on the volley beyond the far post by tricky right winger Alexis Sánchez. The early goal put Chile on its way to a 3-1 win.
Some might see this result as nothing special against the team rooted to the bottom of the table. But Peru's problems have come on the road. Before this game, it was unbeaten at home, where it has been playing at a frenetic pace. For this game, especially, the Peruvians could count on fanatical support since Chile is their main local rival. There's an uneasy history between the two countries, and the "Pacific derby" is rarely a peaceful affair. Chile's win was very impressive -- a triumph for the aggressive mentality of its coach.
Bielsa's six-year spell in charge of his native Argentina was marked by the immense disappointment of the 2002 World Cup, when the team that had looked so good in qualifying and was widely seen as the favorite ended up being eliminated in the group phase. He was unlucky. An earlier-than-usual World Cup left his players with insufficient time to recover from the rigors of the European season. Bielsa's high-intensity game makes top fitness levels a necessity.
But it was also true that his system looked too rigid. Looking to play in the other team's half of the field, his favored 3-3-1-3 system left his center forward squeezed up against the opposing defenders, with little space in which to operate. Bielsa is now interpreting his intentions with more flexibility. With Chile, his center forward, Humberto Suazo, likes to drop deep, creating space for attacking midfielder Mati Fernández to break forward. They form an excellent partnership.
The team was full of excellent partnerships on Sunday. Jean Beausejour, a bold selection on the left of midfield, combined well with González down one flank. On the other, there were some terrific moments when Sánchez moved inside and left a corridor into which right back Mauricio Isla could charge. It was Bielsa's philosophy well interpreted: attacking intentions and concerted forward movement used to create two-on-one situations in the final third of the pitch. The match was a reminder that the World Cup has plenty to gain with Chile's presence.
But there is a weakness that could harm the Chileans' prospects in South Africa next year -- assuming it doesn't stop them from getting there. They defend badly in the air. There isn't a lot of height on the team, and the back line looks in trouble whenever a quality ball is played into its box. Peru's goal on Sunday came when the Chile defense was unable to deal with a hopeful forward punt.
This is a defect that Uruguay is well suited to exploit. Wednesday's visitors to Santiago have scored more goals than anyone else in this qualification campaign. Uruguay carries plenty of aerial threat: Strikers Diego Forlán and Sebastián Abreu, center backs DiegoLugano and DiegoGodín and midfielder Sebastián Eguren all can do damage on set pieces. And Saturday's 2-0 win over Paraguay showed the Uruguayans in form and with a method of play designed to make the most of their strength.
To the surprise of the Paraguayans, Uruguay came out with a back three, forcing its opponents to re-jig their own system. With the two Pereiras as wing backs, Maxi Pereira on the right and Alvaro Pereira on the left, there was plenty of width, and they looked to switch the play either to make the space to get crosses into the box, or to launch their strikers one on one with the Paraguayan defenders -- a situation in which Luis Suárez is particularly dangerous.
This, then, is the big attraction of Wednesday's game. It's highly unlikely that both sides can qualify automatically. The best that one of them probably can hope for is to finish fifth, booking a playoff against the fourth-place finisher from CONCACAF. So there's plenty at stake. Both sides are playing well, both have weapons that can hurt the other and both will be searching for a win.
Since both Chile and Uruguay can't pick up maximum points, there's hope for the chasing pack -- which now seems reduced to Colombia and Ecuador. If they can win their midweek matches (away to Venezuela and at home to Paraguay, respectively), the fight for that fifth spot promises to go all the way until the final ball of the campaign is kicked in October.