With only two rounds remaining until the conclusion of two years of South American qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, only Brazil and Paraguay have booked their tickets to South Africa.
The past week of action has been some of the most dramatic of the entire competition, with several surprising results. Argentina lost both of its games, and is in real danger of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970. Meanwhile, Chile is almost there, and Ecuador and Uruguay have renewed their hopes. Here are five things we learned this past week:
The Seleção proved it will arrive in South Africa as the hot favorite to win a record sixth World Cup after its hard-fought 4-2 victory over Chile Wednesday night, one in which it extended its winning streak to 11 matches and its unbeaten run to 19.
Brazil was without several of its biggest stars, including Kaká, Luís Fabiano, Robinho and captain Lúcio, but still put on a solid performance. What was most impressive about Dunga's side was how it managed to score twice and essentially win the match despite playing with a man down for almost 30 minutes. It was another demonstration of how the team can regroup and overcome a difficult scenario, as was the case in the final of the Confederations Cup, when it came from two down to beat the U.S. 3-2.
To win the World Cup, you need depth and Brazil has it. If you can call them "bench warmers," guys like hat-trick hero Nilmar, Adriano, Júlio Baptista and Daniel Alves showed they're equally as good as the starters, and more than capable of replacing them. In a tournament like the World Cup, with so many matches in a short space of time, it's essential to have plenty of options off the bench. When you think that a player like Juventus playmaker Diego wasn't even called up to the squad, you realize the kind of talent Brazil has at its disposal.
After the win over Chile, Dunga complained about the "criticism" his team received from the fans at the Pituaçu stadium in Salvador after the visitors drew even. He recalled that earlier in its campaign, Brazil struggled a great deal, and some were even calling for his head. Back then, all he asked for was patience and more time and eventually, things would work themselves out. Luckily the Brazilian federation had confidence in him, because Dunga rectified the situation perfectly and now should be considered one of the best coaches in the business. Could the same happen to Diego Maradona with Argentina? Maybe not...
When Maradona was hired as Argentina manager last October, he never would have imagined the kind of pressure he's receiving now. Most thought becoming a coach would be a smooth transition for him, particularly because they figured Maradona was multitalented and capable of achieving pretty much anything (much like record-breaking FC Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, who won five titles in his debut season).
But his lack of understanding of the tactical side of the game was on display in defeats to both Brazil and Paraguay over the past week. Against the Paraguayans, he brought on Martín Palermo and Rolando Schiavi (35 and 36 years of age, respectively) because of their height and asked his midfielders to pump as many crosses to their heads as possible in order to find a late equalizer. Obviously that didn't work, and Argentina wasn't any deadlier inside of the area.
"El Pibe de Oro" hasn't been able to get the most out of his players, no matter what he has tried. When a player of the caliber of Lionel Messi continues to be in stunning form for Barcelona, but underachieves for his national team, clearly something is going wrong. Unfortunately, it's up to Maradona to figure this out.
The bottom line is Maradona still has a lot to learn to be an "acceptable" coach and, with only two matches left in World Cup qualifying, Argentina is in serious jeopardy of missing out on South Africa. The Argentines face Peru and Uruguay next month and, while they're expected to beat Peru at home, facing Uruguay in Montevideo is less of a given. The River Plate derby has the potential to decide which of the two teams will finish in fifth place and advance to the playoff against the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF over two legs in October (Costa Rica is currently in that position).
Gerardo Martino's side clinched its fourth successive World Cup after its justified 1-0 victory over Argentina in Asunción. La Albirroja has experienced a memorable campaign, and signs are very promising with the World Cup just around the corner. Paraguay doesn't have many stars, but it does have an ideal blend of talent. Martino has assembled a formidable unit that always sticks to its game plan no matter who or where it plays. Against Argentina, it demonstrated that collective play and counterattacking ability are its forte. But Paraguay also has conceded only 13 goals in 16 matches during qualifying, which proves it's also very solid as a defensive unit. Martino's men could turn a lot of heads next summer.
Marcelo Bielsa's side came into the round unbeaten in its last five games, but was held at home unexpectedly by Venezuela and was thumped by Brazil. Now, Chile will have to wait one more month to assure itself of participation in South Africa. That won't be a straightforward task, as the Chileans face Colombia in Bogotá and Ecuador in Santiago. In that first game, Chile will be without the services of its star player, Udinese starlet Alexis Sánchez, who was red-carded in the loss to Brazil. That's a big blow.
Ecuador is a firm lock to finish as the fourth-place team of South America and essentially the final team to gain direct entry to the World Cup. The Ecuadorians proved their authority in a comfortable victory over Bolivia (yes, Argentina, in the high altitude of La Paz) that puts them in a good position to reach the World Cup for a third straight time.
La Tri virtually would book a ticket to South Africa with a win over Uruguay in Quito in its next game. Not only is this a crucial game for Ecuador, but one for Uruguay as well. If the Uruguayans claim the three points, they would overtake Ecuador in the standings and inch closer towards South Africa.
La Celeste will be highly motivated after its dramatic 3-1 victory over Colombia at the Centenario stadium on Wednesday. The two-time world champions played their heart out and won the game in stunning fashion, particularly because Colombia was the more dominant side over the 90 minutes. A bonus for Uruguay is that if it finishes with the same points total as Argentina, it gets the nod with a superior goal difference of plus-eight.
Venezuela is back in contention for a first World Cup appearance after picking up four points in its last two matches. La Vinotinto is alive and kicking, but faces daunting challenges in its final two games against Paraguay and Brazil. That's probably too big an obstacle to overcome.