Argentina coach Diego Maradona will be in the spotlight as six South American countries commence battle for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ starting Saturday.
With Brazil and Paraguay already assured of their tickets to South Africa next year, Maradona's Argentina and five other teams will be vying for the two remaining automatic qualifying spots with the fifth-placed team going into a play-off. Argentina, who have been further weakened by squabbling between Maradona and general manager Carlos Bilardo, need to beat Peru on Saturday, in the penultimate qualifier.
A defeat in Buenos Aires against tailenders Peru, who are already out of the running, would not end Argentina's FIFA World Cup dream. But it would make their task extremely difficult before their visit to dangerous rivals Uruguay on Wednesday, who could also still be looking to qualify if they draw against Ecuador at the weekend.
Footballing legend Maradona acknowledged that after a disastrous qualifying campaign his job was on the line and he might quit after their must-win qualifiers. The beleaguered football legend even sought divine intervention as he pondered Argentina's chances of reaching the FIFA World Cup finals. "The bearded one (God) saved me many times before - and I hope he will do so this time," said Maradona.
Argentina are five points behind third-placed Chile (27) with Ecuador on 23. Sixth-placed Uruguay (21), Venezuela (21) and Colombia (20), are also in the running for qualification. Bolivia (12) and Peru (10), are already ruled out, but will be eager to ensure that they avoid the humiliation of finishing last in the standings.
All to play for
One of the two automatic qualifying spots looks certain to go to Chile, who will qualify if they beat Colombia on Saturday. For the other, Argentina are trailing Ecuador and are just one point ahead of Uruguay and Venezuela. Maradona's side must also be wary of Colombia who are just two points behind them.
The slightest slip up will mean Argentina fail to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1970. Argentina don't need to be reminded of that nightmare after what has been a trying time for the team this week after Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta picked up a hamstring injury on Monday.
But Maradona's main worry will be the configuration of his team. The former playmaker has called up 78 players since his appointment a year ago, but is still looking for the right mix, and has given the nod to debutants Liverpool defender Emiliano Insua and Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain. He has also recalled up Pablo Aimar to try and help Lionel Messi work some miracles for Argentine.
Uruguay, who play Ecuador on Saturday, will have every incentive to win as they can still grab fourth spot in the group and an automatic finals berth. "We're all dreaming of going to the World Cup. We have to get through these two matches to make it happen," said coach Oscar Tabarez. "It's difficult but not impossible."
Chile look assured of their spot in the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1998 in France, and can qualify directly if they beat Colombia on Saturday and if Ecuador or Argentina lose. Colombia need to win against both Chile and Paraguay to be in with a chance of making the fifth-place play-off against the fourth-placed Central American zone team.
Ecuador, meanwhile, are also dreaming of qualifying for their third consecutive FIFA World Cup finals. But they must beat Uruguay on Saturday, a result which would practically assure them the play-off spot and take a point from Chile in Santiago next week. Venezuela have a difficult task to qualify for their first FIFA World Cup. They first need to beat Paraguay and four days later topple Brazil.