The scramble at the top of South American qualifiers to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is set to intensify over the next three days, with five more vital ties taking place up and down the continent. FIFA.com sets the scene for the latest episode in what is turning out to be a gripping race for places at the 19th edition of the world finals. The week's action begins on Tuesday, with Brazil and Argentina squaring off the following day.
The big game
Brazil-Argentina, Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte, Wednesday 18 June, 21.50 (local time)
These are uncertain times for the two giants of South American football. The weekend yielded disappointing results for both of them and, with so few points separating the top six, Wednesday's meeting has taken on even greater importance. If anything, it is the Seleção whose needs are greater. Lying in an unusually low fourth place, defeat to the Argentinians could see them drop out of the qualification berths altogether. That said, the Albiceleste are not without problems of their own after a draw and a defeat in their last two qualifiers - all of which begs the question: who will stop the rot in Belo Horizonte?
There is more to the week's fixture list than Brazil and Argentina, however. Uruguay get the ball rolling in Montevideo on Tuesday when they host a crisis-stricken Peru side languishing in ninth place. A perfect opportunity, then, for the Celeste to rekindle their South Africa 2010 hopes after dropping two points at home to Venezuela at the weekend. The Uruguayans have not beaten the Peruvians at the Centenario since 15 December 1996, though, and if they are to improve on their current position of sixth they will need to bring an immediate end to that dismal run.
Bottom meets top in La Paz on Wednesday, when Bolivia entertain high-flying Paraguay. Erwin Sanchez's strugglers have just one point to their name so far, while the Albirroja are three clear of the pack after disposing of Brazil on Sunday. Current form aside, history suggests Gerardo Martino and his men might have a hard time of things in the Bolivian capital. The Paraguayans have won only once in six attempts in La Paz, that solitary success coming a quarter of a century ago.
In the day's other game, Ecuador will attempt to continue their recovery under Sixto Vizuete in an enticing home fixture against Jorge Luis Pinto's in-form Colombia. The Cafeteros, who lie third behind Argentina and Paraguay, have won only once on their travels to Quito, losing twice and drawing three times.
Rounding off the week's action is an equally attractive clash between Venezuela and Chile. The two teams are tied on seven points with the Vinotinto occupying fifth place courtesy of their slightly superior goal difference. That immediate rivalry for the play-off slot should add a little extra intensity to Thursday's duel, in which the ever-improving Venezuelans will be hoping to register their first ever FIFA World Cup qualifying win at home to La Roja.
Player to watch
Quite apart from the galaxy of stars on parade for Brazil and Argentina, one man who will be attracting more attention than most is Chile's Gary Medel. The Universidad Catolica man usually occupies a midfield holding role for his club but was switched to the defence against Bolivia and promptly scored both goals in a 2-0 win. A key figure in Chile's run to the semi-finals at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, the 20-year-old is hoping to produce another match-winning performance against Venezuela on Thursday.
What they said
"In Buenos Aires we were 30 seconds away from pulling off an historic win but we didn't quite make it. I'm not worried, though. We'll beat Colombia at home on Wednesday and we'll get back in the race again. There's still a long way to go," Ecuador coach Sixto Vizuete.