With just eight matchdays remaining, qualifying in the South American Zone has gone on hiatus until March 2009. The perfect moment, therefore, for FIFA.com to look back on the pick of the incidents so far and check the form of the runners and riders in the race for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Paraguay in control, Chile the dark horses
Of the five teams leading the standings, perhaps the only surprise name in that select group are a Chile side led by Argentinian strategist Marcelo Bielsa. La Roja had finished bottom of the pile in the ten-team group in qualifying for Korea/Japan 2002 and seventh ahead of Germany 2006, but the outlook appears much rosier this time around. Boasting a daring head coach and an exciting crop of talented youngsters, some impressive results from the Chileans have propelled them into a deserved fourth place.
Comfortably leading the way and with one foot already in South Africa are Gerardo Martino's Paraguay. The Argentinian tactician has constructed a compact unit that have won five out of five in the capital Asuncion, their only defeat in ten games coming at altitude against Bolivia in La Paz. Indeed, La Albirroja are just eight points shy of the tally that sealed their place at Germany 2006. "We've taken an important step forward but there's still some way to go," warns Martino.
And though the high-flying Paraguayans are not there yet, they do boast a hefty six-point lead over five-time world champions Brazil. The Auriverde have failed to capture the imagination in qualifying thus far, and the same can be said of third-placed Argentina - whose coach Alfio Basile stepped down after last week's 1-0 reverse against Chile. Uruguay, meanwhile, are in line for a play-off berth, just as in their last two qualifying campaigns. Nothing is set in stone, however, with just six points separating second and seventh place.
Facts and farewells
The 50 matches played so far have thrown up a number of intriguing statistics. Paraguay's 100 per cent home record, for example, a run that has them firmly on the path to South Africa, as well as the dispelling of a couple of long-standing myths in the South American game. For a country that supposedly struggles to produce reliable goalkeepers, Brazil have conceded just four times in their ten games. Meanwhile Uruguay, under coach Oscar Tabarez, are no longer the defensive-minded side of old, topping the scoring charts with 19 goals so far.
Other records have been broken too. Joaquin Botero's brace in the ninth matchday against Peru made him Bolivia's all-time top scorer and Argentina's Javier Zanetti, with 122 senior international appearances, is now the highest capped player in Albiceleste history. Chile, on 15 October 2008, recorded their first ever win over Argentina in FIFA World Cup qualifying, ending a 35-year wait. Another curious fact is that two of the Zone's three leading scorers, Botero and Marcelo Martins, both play for Bolivia, who lie second-to-bottom in the standings.
On a less celebratory note, Argentina went from November 2007 to October 2008 without a qualifying win, a five-game sequence that is an Albiceleste record. Arch-rivals Brazil too are finding home soil less than accommodating, having now gone three home games without finding the net. Even worse off are Colombia, whose goalless spell now stretches to 532 minutes.
New faces, familiar dreams
As is the case every four years, a sprinkling of up-and-coming stars burst onto the scene as South America's finest compete for a place at world football's top table. It is Chile who have been the outstanding team in this regard, with young bucks Matias Fernandez, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal all establishing themselves as integral members of Bielsa's squad. Nor must we forget gifted Audax Italiano midfield man Fabian Orellano, who marked his competitive debut last time out with a historic winning goal against Argentina.
Staying with Argentina, the Albiceleste's driving force at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aguero, has successfully made the step up to senior star, mirroring the case of forward Luis Suarez of neighbouring Uruguay. Other notable newcomers are Ronald Vargas of Venezuela and Ecuador's Felipe Caicedo, both of whom will also be dreaming of appearing at the South African showpiece in less than two years' time.
With eight matchdays still to go and everything to play for, FIFA.com will bring you all the news and results at every step of the way.