It is often said that South American Zone qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ is one of the most difficult around, with many experienced national coaches claiming the qualifiers are even tougher than the global showpiece itself. And going on the evidence of the action in 2012, such statements do not seem far off the mark.

With the exception of an Argentina squad inspired by the unstoppable Lionel Messi, just a few points separate a clutch of sides in the CONMEBOL standings. Ecuador and Colombia head the pack chasing La Albiceleste, while Venezuela (aiming to qualify for the finals for the first time), Uruguay and Chile are all currently vying for the fourth direct passage to Brazil 2014.

As the competition approaches an increasingly decisive stage, FIFA.com takes a look at the qualifying highlights from the last 12 months.

The match
Argentina 3-0 Uruguay
The River Plate clásico held on 12 October in Mendoza had all the ingredients of a very special showdown, particularly since La Celeste had knocked hosts Argentina out of the previous year’s Copa America and were determined to rain on their parade this time around too.

The magisterial Messi was too hot to handle for the Charrúa defence, however, and struck twice – the second a sublime free kick – for Alejandro Sabella’s high-flying charges. Sergio Aguero, rapidly becoming El Pulga’s ideal partner-in-crime, fired La Albiceste’s second in a 3-0 result which underlined the sides’ contrasting fortunes in this qualifying phase.

The goal
Peru 0-1 Colombia - James Rodriguez (COL)
It may not have been the finest goal of this year’s CONMEBOL qualifying action, but the FC Porto rising star’s opportunistic left-foot finish 51 minutes into the match in Lima earned Colombia a hard-fought second win in qualifying. The three points also provided a vital fillip to squad morale on what was Jose Pekerman’s debut as Los Cafeteros’ coach.

Including that match, Colombia have won four of five qualifiers under the Argentinian strategist to move into third spot, behind only Argentina and Ecuador. “The team rose to the challenge, though that goal gave us a real boost at a key moment,” said Pekerman, who is aiming to guide Colombia back to a FIFA World Cup for the first time since France 1998.

The stat
20
– The percentage of available points Paraguay have taken over 2012, which explains their lowly position in the table. La Albirroja, who have qualified for every FIFA World Cup since 1998, are bottom of the standings with seven points, having beaten Peru (1-0) but lost to Bolivia (3-1), Argentina (3-1), Venezuela (2-0) and Colombia (2-0) during this calendar year. Gerardo Pelusso’s team thus need a drastic upturn in fortunes come 2013, as well as other results going their way, to get back in the qualifying hunt.

The words
“In several games we've lost our way after going behind, and that’s not acceptable. We’ve now got to treat every game like a final, because our chances of qualifying for the World Cup are in real danger,” Diego Lugano, captain of a Uruguay side currently in fifth spot in the standings, which would force La Celeste to qualify via the intercontinental play-offs.

Up next
Over the course of 2013 are the final eight matchdays that will decide the destiny of four direct tickets to Brazil 2014 and the one available place in the intercontinental play-offs. With the exception of Colombia, who have played one match fewer, all the other teams have seven games remaining.

Argentina (20 points), Ecuador (17) and Los Cafeteros (16) are currently closest to cementing a spot on Brazilian soil, while Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile are all level on 12 points in the fight for the remaining berths. Further back in the race are Bolivia and Peru (both eight points), while struggling Paraguay prop up the rest with seven.

Have your say
In your view, what’s been the highlight of the South American qualifiers in 2012? Can Venezuela clinch their first ever FIFA World Cup appearance? Click on “Have your say” to share your views with other FIFA.com users.