High Drama in South America

Maradona has Argentina on the Verge of the Unthinkable

The grueling 18-game round robin CONMEBOL qualifiers are down to the last two match days. Only two teams, Brazil and Paraguay, have secured their pass to their pass to the finals. Two other teams, Peru and Bolivia, have been eliminated. That leaves 5 teams within 3 points of each other. You can bet that during the last two games, there will be a sizable increase in smoking, antacid ingestion, and nitroglycerin patch use – especially in Argentina.

What happened to the albiceleste? It wasn’t long ago that I thought Argentina would be prohibitive favorites to win the whole tournament. I am still not sure why Alfio Basile tendered his resignation after losing at Chile a year ago, as they were comfortably in the qualifying zone. A year and 6 matches later, the situation has gotten immensely worse, this time at the hands of one Diego Armando Maradona. The squad has lost 4 of their last six, including two humiliating setbacks: a 6-1 drubbing at Bolivia, and a 3-1 dud at home to Brazil. The disastrous results have dropped Argentina out of the golden zone and into the playoff spot. And if they want the direct qualification, Argentina need help. If they manage to win both of their fixtures (at home to Peru and across el Rio de la Plata in Montevideo), they will gain the automatic birth, provided that Ecuador do not win both of theirs. Anything less than six points, though, and its time to watch the scoreboard.

This nifty simulator will help you see who needs what

If Argentina does manage to squeeze in, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be duds in South Africa. Tim Vickery points out that Brazil had a similar struggle in 2002, only to win the whole thing. Coincidentally, Argentina was 12 points clear at the top of the qualifying table, yet did not survive past the first round in Japan.

One team that controls their own destiny is Uruguay. They are away to Ecuador, then home to the aforementioned Argentines. Uruguay has gotten ties in their last ventures to the Andean capital, and Ecuador needs the win as well. Nothing better than must win footie!! Even though 6 points will get the Ecuadorians through, they can back-door it with 4, as long as Argentina or Uruguay don’t get their full complement of points (then it’s playoff time).

Colombia needs all sorts of crazy combinations to make it through, as long as they get their full six points. Here’s one, if they win their full six points, and every other fixture ends in a draw, then they are in. But any dropped points will eliminate the cafeteros from contention.

The other longshot is Venezuela, but just the fact that they are still alive with two games to go is nothing short of a miracle. The perennial doormats of South America have put together a very respectable run, and if they somehow manage to beat Paraguay at home and then become the first team to defeat Brazil at home. Then they are playoff bound. And with the current run of their U20's in Egypt, the future has never been brighter for the Vino Tinto.

The last team, Chile, currently sits third and is virtually assured of at least the playoff -- even with two losses. One point is enough to get La Roja through. Even if they do lose twice, as long as either Argentina, Uruguay, or Ecuador draw once, they are through.

Unfortunately for us, the last matchday is not scheduled for simultaneous play, like it is in CONCACAF, so some of the drama might be muted somewhat. Let’s hope they make the switch.

Predictions: Chile and Argentina make it make through, with Uruguay heading to the playoff. Uruguay puts in Ecuador’s demise in motion with a shock win in Quito. Then, Chile’s Argentine manager, Marcelo Bielsa, does Argentina a solid by finishing them off. Argentina has no problem with Peru and then eeks out a late draw at the Centenario.

Next week: CONCACAF