If there is one team that knows its way around the FIFA World Cup™ qualification process then it is Argentina. The Albiceleste have never failed to qualify since the league system was first introduced for France 1998, topping the section in 1997 and 2001, and finishing second in 2005. And after impressing at the Copa America last year, Alfio Basile's side are currently charting a direct course to South Africa 2010, where they hope their individual brilliance will pave the way to a third world crown.
While the men in blue and white have yet to face fellow powerhouses Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, their form so far against more modest opposition has been impressive, as a record of three wins, one defeat, eight goals for and two against indicates. The main reason for that is the abundance of talent in their ranks, particularly in midfield and up front. Their magnificent home record is another significant factor. The Argentinians' last defeat on their own patch came way back in September 1993, during Basile's first stint in charge, when Colombia inflicted an infamous 5-0 drubbing.
While their position in the regional qualifying table looks secure enough, Argentina have come in for criticism for some fairly lacklustre second-half performances. With the exception of the Bolivia match, Basile's side have done all their scoring in the opening 45 minutes, shifting down a gear or two after the restart. While that approach worked out well enough against Chile and Venezuela, it backfired when they travelled to Colombia, where they relinquished their first-half lead to slump to their one and only reverse so far. Demanding as always, the fans are expecting a little bit more from their heroes.
Their finest hour
Argentina 2-0 Chile
Goals: Juan Roman Riquelme 26, 45
Marcelo Bielsa's debut on the Chile bench - his first managerial post since walking out on the Argentina job in 2004 - added a little extra spice to this neighbourly showdown in Buenos Aires. LaRoja had no answer to the hosts' superior firepower, however. Inspired by a typically virtuoso performance from Lionel Messi and Riquelme's brace of masterly free kicks, Argentina strolled to a comfortable and ultimately important win, their most impressive of a rather colourless campaign to date.
The key men
One of the biggest challenges facing Basile when he took over again was to conjure up a replacement for Roberto Ayala, the cornerstone of the back line for over a decade. El Coco's solution was to reignite the career of Martin Demichelis, who had missed out on a place in Jose Pekerman's squad for Germany 2006. The Bayern Munich centre-half duly picked up the gauntlet and has surprised everyone with his assured showings. Javier Mascherano has been another one to impress, along with the inimitable Messi and Riquelme, who chipped in with some vital strikes at the beginning of the campaign despite being sidelined at the time by former club Villarreal.
The numbers game
3: The number of free kicks Juan Roman Riquelme has stroked into the back of the net, two against Chile and one against Bolivia. The Boca crowd pleaser also bagged another fine goal against the Bolivians and is the leading scorer in the race to qualify for South Africa 2010.
"We're not looking for revenge when we take on Brazil. We're the two biggest teams in South America and it's a classic rivalry, and like any rivalry sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. They came out on top when we last met, but I'm hoping it's our turn next time. Generally speaking, whoever scores first usually ends up winning and hopefully we can do just that." Coach Alfio Basile looks ahead to June's crunch clash between Brazil and Argentina.