Madness. That's the only word to describe Saturday's action in the South American zone as the qualifying competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ entered its penultimate round.
Making the headlines were two Argentinians who share the same nickname of El Loco (The Madman); Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa, who saw his team win a thrilling encounter in Medellin to return to the world elite for the first time since France 1998, and Albiceleste striker Martin Palermo, who came off the bench to secure the most dramatic of winners for against Peru.
That late strike took Diego Maradona's misfiring outfit up to fourth, but with Wednesday's trip to Montevideo to face a Uruguay side revitalised by their impressive comeback in Quito still to come, Palermo and Co cannot relax yet. Elsewhere Colombia kissed goodbye to their qualification dreams, while Venezuela's hopes are all but mathematically over.
The big game
Colombia 2-4 Chile
Goals: Arturo Vidal 13 og, Giovanni Moreno 63 (Colombia); Waldo Ponce 35, Humberto Suazo 36, Jorge Valdivia 72, Fabian Orellana 79 (Chile)
Marcelo Bielsa's men survived a genuine test of character in Medellin to end their decade-long spell in the international wilderness and crush Colombia's lingering hopes. Denied the services of Alexis ‘The Wonder Boy' Sanchez, the Chileans fell behind to an own goal before Valdivia came off the bench to set up two goals in the space of 60 seconds. After capping a virtuoso performance with his side's third, he then celebrated with his team-mates as Orellana wrapped up a historic win.
Surprise of the day
Argentina 2-1 Peru
Goals: Gonzalo Higuain 48, Martin Palermo 90+3 (Argentina); Hernan Rengifo 90 (Peru)
Few expected such an incredible finale to Argentina's must-win encounter against a rock-bottom Peru side that had lost every one of their away games. Higuain's opener just after half-time settled Argentinian nerves only for Rengifo to have them jangling again when he nodded an equaliser on the stroke of stoppage time.
As torrential rain continued to fall and the wind howled, Argentina earned themselves one last chance at the other end, with Martin Palermo appearing unmarked at the far post to sidefoot home and trigger the wildest of celebrations at the Estadio Monumental. Amazingly, that was not the end of the drama. Juan Vargas almost caught out Albiceleste keeper Sergio Romero straight from the restart, the Alkmaar gloveman just managing to tip his audacious long-range strike on to the crossbar and away to safety.
La Celeste are determined to take their place alongside the world's best next year. A clear indication of that came when Oscar Tabarez's side came from behind to beat Ecuador 2-1 in Quito, a win that took them up to fifth and has made them masters of their own destiny in the race for the last direct ticket to the finals.
Antonio Valencia's fine header put the home side in front only for Luis Suarez to slot home just moments later for the visitors, who went on to complete a deserved win when Diego Forlan converted an injury-time spot-kick. That late strike has set up a titanic duel with neighbours Argentina in Montevideo on Wednesday, a winner-takes-all showdown that will revive memories of the 1930 FIFA World Cup Final.
In the day's other game Venezuela's hopes were all but extinguished when they fell 2-1 at home to the already qualified Paraguay. Salvador Cabanas and Oscar Cardozo scored for La Albirroja to underline their strength-in-depth up front, while Justo Villar impressed in goal for the away side by keeping out Nicolas Fedor's penalty. Alexander Rondon's goal in the closing stages came too late to trigger a Vinotinto revival.
In Sunday's only match Bolivia stunned Brazil in La Paz to end the five-time world champions run of 19 matches without defeat. The 2-1 result was inconsequential in the standings with Brazil having wrapped up qualification last month and Bolivia already eliminated. The home side raced out of the blocks and held a two-goal margin at the interval thanks to Edgar Olivares and a Marcelo Martins free-kick. Brazil, without Kaka and Luis Fabiano, pulled a goal back through the in-form Nilmar following on from his hat-trick a month ago against Chile. The Brazilians remain on top of the South American standings on 33 points, ahead of Paraguay by virtue of goal difference, while Bolivia has 15 points, with the win consigning Peru to the wooden spoon.
Player of the dayMartin Palermo (ARG)
*While Jorge Valdivia played a crucial role in Chile's win in Colombia, Argentina would have been almost down and out without the veteran striker. After scoring a remarkable 38-metre header for Boca Juniors last weekend, *El Loco popped up in just the right place at just the right time to save La Albiceleste and keep their South Africa 2010 bid on track. Not bad for a 35-year-old who once suffered the embarrassment of missing three penalties in a 1999 Copa America tie against Colombia.
The stat 24 - The number of years since Uruguay's last win in Quito, a 2-0 victory on 31 March 1985 in the qualifiers for Mexico 1986.
What they said"I'm very happy, more than anything else because the players have been completely faithful to what we've been trying to do. This is the time to remember all the people that are here and the ones that aren't, all the people who have formed part of this process. All of them have been very important in us qualifying and we're very happy, not just about getting there but about how we got there." Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa reacts to his side's qualification for the finals.
ResultsColombia 2-4 Chile
Ecuador 1-2 Uruguay
Argentina 2-1 Peru
Venezuela 1-2 Paraguay
Bolivia 2-1 Brazil (Sunday match)