South American qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ reaches the halfway stage this weekend, with five fixtures that could give the standings a very different complexion.
As ever, FIFA.com is on hand to preview all the action on a matchday when marksmen of the calibre of Colombia's Radamel Falcao Garcia, Uruguay's Diego Forlan and Paraguay's Roque Santa Cruz will be notable by their absence. On the upside, however, Brazil's Kaka makes a welcome return against Venezuela, a game you can follow live on FIFA.com's Emirates MatchCast.
Argentinians and Uruguayans have always enjoyed a close kinship, with only the Rio de La Plata stretch of water separating the countries. While the two nations have a great deal in common, from a love of mate to a passion for their homeland and its traditions, few things can match their shared appreciation of football. Be that as it may, when the duo square off on the playing field, all affinity takes a back seat for 90 minutes. Things will be no different this Sunday when the finalists of the inaugural FIFA World Cup in 1930 renew their rivalry in Buenos Aires.
The Celeste will be without Diego Forlan, the top scorer in the current preliminary competition, in their quest to record their maiden victory in a qualifying game in Buenos Aires. The Albiceleste, meanwhile, have Juan Riquelme as a doubt but will be desperate to get back on the victory trail after five straight games without a win.
There should be excitement aplenty further north as well. Brazil will be hoping for an improvement on recent performances when they travel to Venezuela, where the Seleção have a 100 per cent record in FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. Coach Dunga will be without Ronaldinho but can take comfort from the return of Kaka. For their part, La Vinotinto will be hoping for a similar result to that of last June, when they surprisingly defeated Brazil 2-0 in a friendly, to move up from eighth in the table.
Elsewhere, Paraguay, comfortably out in front in the ten-team group, visit Colombia, who have gone four games without a win and who will have Eduardo Lara making his debut at the helm. Both sides will be missing key strikers, Roque Santa Cruz for the visitors and Radamel Falcao Garcia for the hosts, although Salvador Cabanas and Nelson Haedo are capable of deputising for Paraguay, as is Wason Renteria for Colombia.
In Quito, meanwhile, Ecuador will seek to build on their improved showing in the last round when they host Marcelo Bielsa's Chile. The visiting coach, who previously held the Argentina reins, has never lost in Quito with a national team and will be keen to extend that proud sequence. The Tricolor will have to do without influential midfielder Edison Mendez and veteran keeper Jose Cevallos, but can count on attacking midfielder Joffre Guerron. The visiting Roja will not be lacking in self-belief, however, having already won in Bolivia and Venezuela this campaign.
Last but not least is the weekend's opening fixture between Bolivia and Peru in La Paz. With the pair propping up the table, the loser can almost certainly kiss goodbye to their hopes of making South Africa 2010.
Player to watch
After an 11-month absence, the AC Milan playmaker makes a return to the national team as they seek to make amends for an opaque showing against Bolivia last time out. "I'm always happy when I can pull on this jersey, but I'm not my country's saviour," the player said in the build up to the game. Just try telling that to the worried Brazilian supporters, who are praying his return will give the team a much-needed lift.
3- The number of points separating second and sixth in the table. The fiercely competitive nature of the current campaign will concern the faltering big guns as they approach the halfway stage in qualifying.
What they said...
"I'm sure (Eduardo) Lara will get Colombia playing in their traditional style again: that is with emphasis on ball control, player movement and attack. The good thing for us is that his influence will be minimal given the very short time he will have had to work with the squad. We'll be going there hoping to find our own game," Gerardo Martino, Paraguay coach