End of the marathon is in sight

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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 Diego Maradona and the exploits of Argentina, which could miss out on the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

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.

La Roja is this close thanks to the work of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa. "El Loco" took over an ordinary team immediately after it was sent crashing out of the '07 Copa América after suffering a 6-1 defeat to Brazil in the quarterfinals. Since then, Bielsa has been able to get the most out of a talented bunch of players. With four wins in its eight away games in qualifying, Chile is more than capable of clinching on Saturday.

La Tri knows that its game with Uruguay in Quito on Saturday is crucial for its World Cup chances. A win will practically seal a spot in a third straight World Cup. However, if Ecuador were to lose or draw, it could face elimination in the final round. With the tickets for the Uruguay game sold out immediately after they were made available to the general public almost a month ago, it's easy to understand the importance of the match.

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 Antonio Valencia of Manchester United.

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 Gonzalo Higuaín.

Another interesting choice was the addition of Benfica playmaker Pablo Aimar, who returns to the side after a lengthy period out, and will be responsible for orchestrating the team's midfield. Perhaps Maradona has been most criticized for including veterans Martín Palermo and Rolando Schiavi -- 35 and 36 years of age, respectively -- in his squad.

But while Argentina seems to have better defensive options than Schiavi (Inter Milan's Walter Samuel first comes to mind), Palermo's inclusion shouldn't be questioned. "El Titan" has been in sensational form in recent weeks. Not only did he score twice in Argentina's 2-0 friendly victory over Ghana last week, but he has been in prolific form for club side Boca Juniors. Last weekend Palermo scored a brilliant goal off a 40-yard header, his 200th in the Argentine first division. (Ironically, Palermo also holds the embarrassing record for missing three penalty kicks in a Copa América game against Colombia 10 years ago.)

The 6-foot-3 Palermo is expected to receive the nod ahead of Higuaín to partner Lionel Messi in Argentina's attack against Peru on Saturday. His inclusion may well add an extra dimension to the Argentina offense because of the height factor, but Higuaín, who is also a tall player at 6-1, also could do a good job.

Regardless of who plays, Argentina needs to find an effective game plan that guarantees results. La Albiceleste is expected to overcome Peru on Saturday, which should set it up nicely to confront its final qualifier against Uruguay next week. If all goes well, Argentina will be CONMEBOL's fifth-place finisher, and will face off against perhaps Costa Rica or Honduras in a two-game playoff.

A loss to Ecuador in Quito will put an abrupt end to Uruguay's World Cup hopes -- la Celeste will have to confront the must-win game as if it were its last. The Uruguayans will have to overcome the effects of the high altitude in the Ecuadorian capital, which would improve their chances of picking up a positive result. Uruguay will be motivated by the fact that if it beats Ecuador and Argentina, it will qualify for its first World Cup since '02. But that's no straightforward task: Uruguay has only won five of its 16 qualifiers.

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 Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez, Uruguay has one of the deadliest attacking partnerships in international soccer, but its lack of a gifted playmaker means that duo has been short of adequate service in key games.

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 la Vinotinto. Three home defeats are why Venezuela finds itself in this position, and its poor goal differential means that if it's tied on points with Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador or even Colombia at the conclusion of the competition, it will still bow out. The bright side, however, is that Venezuela is now capable of mixing it up with the best teams of the continent. If it continues to progress, its chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup could increase.

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.