By NESTOR F. SEBASTIAN
Fifty matches down, forty more to go.
CONMEBOL's roller-coaster marathon for the right to qualify to South Africa 2010 continues this weekend as all 10 national squads in South American still have a fighting mathematical chance to grab the four available automatic berths to the World Cup. The fifth-placed team will go up against CONCACAF's fourth-placed team.
At the moment, Uruguay sits in that fifth slot with 13 points but is closely followed by Ecuador (12), Colombia (11) and Venezuela (10). Bolivia (9) and Peru (7) need miraculous conclusions to their respective campaigns to even think about facing off with a rival north of South America.
Paraguay (23) leads the pack, with Brazil (17), Argentina (16) and Chile (16) comfortably sitting pretty…at least before this weekend.
Here is a closer look at this weekend's South American World Cup qualifying match-ups:
URUGUAY v. PARAGUAY
How many times have we been inundated with the 'defense wins games' memo?
Well, the Paraguayans are writing a perfect script on How To Successfully Qualify Out Of South America. The Guaranies are running away with the top post in the continent's table and are looking to book a ticket to South Africa as quickly as possible not only to make life easier on themselves but to also alert the world that South America is not only Brazil and Argentina.
Not only has Paraguay held their opponents scoreless in seven of the past 10 rounds with one of the stingiest defenses on the planet, they also boast a talented offensive artillery including Salvador Cabanas (America of Mexico) and Nelson Haedo (Borussia Dortmund), both of whom will need to step it up a notch in the absence of the prolific but injured Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn).
But Uruguay will have home-field advantage at the infamous Centenario Stadium. The Charruas, always known as a South American giant, have only qualified to one of the past four WCs and doesn't intend to sit 2010 out.
They have the firepower to oust the current leaders with Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid), young sensation Luis Suares (Ajax)–who's tallied nine goals in 14 outings for his country–as well as a midfield contingent of Sebastian Eguren (Villareal), Cristian Rodriguez (Porto) and Diego Perez (Monaco).
ARGENTINA v. VENEZUELA
Juan Roman Riquelme won't be there but Maradona will.
Monumental Stadium should be rocking when Argentina's most famous number 10 makes his long-awaited debut as manager in the qualifiers, capping off a month of soap-opera headlines of Maradona's rift with Riquelme.
Riquelme quit the national team after Maradona made comments regarding his playing style but Argentina's stars are moving on without him, refusing to dissect the situation to the press. The Argentines are stone-faced focused on its tilt with the Vinotinto.
The Venezuelans are no longer the whipping boys of South America. That status is long forgotten and they would love nothing more than to build upon their modestly-successful campaigns in the past two World Cup cycles at a venue where Argentina seldom loses in front of one of the most passionate crowd on the planet.
And morale is further boosted by Venezuela's under-20 team recent qualifying to the World Cup, which is that country's first berth in any official international tournament.
Influential playmaker Juan Arango (Mallorca), Tomas Rincon (Borussia Dortmund) and Jorge Rojas (Red Bull New York) will look to shock the world.
But Venezuela will have to go up against Argentina's trio of power in Carlos Tevez (Man U), Lionel Messi (Barca) and Serio Aguero (Atl. Madrid), all of whom Maradona plans to have in the starting 11 on Saturday.
COLOMBIA v. BOLIVIA
Restless fans are wondering if their beloved Colombian squad will be able to score at all this weekend against Bolivia.
Astonishingly, the Cafeteros have only netted four gals in the first 10 rounds and have not won in its past six qualifiers so it will be up to forwards Hugo Rodallega (Wigan) and Radamel Falcao Garcia (River Plate) to provide some spark. Midfielders Macnelly Torres (Colo Colo, Chile) and Vladimir Marin (Libertad, Paraguay) have been enjoying successfull Libertadores campaigns.
On paper, Colombia should be able to walk away with three points against Bolivia, which hasn't qualified since USA '94.
Bolivia will be hoping its captain Ronald Raldes will be able to shake off several months of non-competition since he's been without a club for a while, that is until earlier this week when he signed for Mexico's Cruz Azul.
The Bolivians will be boosted by veteran Pablo Escobar's (Clube Santo Andre, Brazil) recent two-goal match against Botafogo and youngster Marcelo Martins (Shakhtar Donestk, Ukrania), who has five goals i 11 matches for his country.
ECUADOR v. BRAZIL
The Brazilians will try to avoid a third-straight defeat in the high-altitude city of Quito when they visit an Ecuadorean team vying for a third consecutive appearance in the World Cup.
Brazil lost by 1-0 scorelines in each of its last two qualifiers in Ecuador and could be in for a difficult game with Kaka and Adriano nursing injuries. Ronaldinho also was selected by manager Dunga after not being picked in Brazil's last two qualifiers but is also coping with ACL issues.
Meanwhile, Ecuador has called in the English-based trio of Antonio Valencia (Wigan), Segundo Castillo (Everton) and Felipe Caicedo (Man City) as well as six players from reigning Liberatores champions Liga de Quito.
The Ecuadorean squad has been a rising force in South America in the past decade, producing world-class players, taking care of business by grabbing wins at home and developing a competitive league, which helped Liga obtain Ecuador's first-ever international title.
PERU v. CHILE
SUNDAY, 7:10PM ET
Only the Argentina-Brazil and Argentina-Uruguay matches can top this Clasico del Pacifico rivalry between the Peruvians and Chileans.
Players on both sides will shrug it off as a sporting duel but it's a match that involves on- and off-the-pitch storylines no matter what the press, players and coaching staff say.
Chile, pushing for its first berth since France '98, is playing some splendid soccer under Argentine caretaker Marcelo 'El Loco' Bielsa and the Rojos even have more wins under their belts than Argentina and Brazil in this campaign.
Chile boasts some fantastic players in Alexis Sanchez (Udinese), Matias Fernandez (Villareal), Hector Mancilla (Toluca) and Mark Gonzelez (Betis).
For Peru, which hasn't qualified for a World Cup since Spain '82, manager Jose Del Solar again chose to leave out four stars who were disciplined for allegedly partying after a 1-1 match against Brazil. Claudio Pizarro (Werder Bremen), Jefferson Farfan (Schalke), Andres Mendoza (Monarcas Morelia) and Santiago Acasiete (Almeria) have not been recalled despite their suspensions being lifted.
Peru will also be missing in-form striker Paolo Guerrero (Hamburg) who was suspended for several matches after his misconduct against officials in Peru's 6-0 drubbing in Uruguay.
Juan Vargas (Fiorentina) hasn't recaptured his form from a few months ago and Nolberto Solano (Universitario de Deportes, Peru) is not getting any younger.
To top it all off, Chile and Peru are embroiled in a bitter maritime border lawsuit but both sides have called to separate politics from soccer.
What do you think of the CONMEBOL qualifiers? Which game will you be watching? Who do you think CONCACAF prefers to face from CONMEBOL?
Share your thoughts below.