Faltering Brazil, Argentina look to assert themselves

[WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFYING] With qualification in South America's single group set to reach the half way stage of its long haul to South Africa this weekend, surprise early leader Paraguay has the chance to cement itself at the top with two comparatively easy fixtures. Argentina and Brazil, meanwhile, will look to finally assert themselves in the group after indifferent starts that have seen both countries win just three of their opening eight games.

Paraguay, with 17 points, has so far beaten Brazil at home and tied Argentina on the road, so if it can avoid slip-ups such as the 4-2 defeat it suffered at the hands of last-place Bolivia, it can make a tremendous stride towards qualification with a favorable result in Colombia Sunday, and by beating ninth-placed Peru at home next Wednesday. The bad news for the side is that it's missing injured Blackburn Rovers striker Roque Santa Cruz, who has scored three goals so far in qualifying. However, Borussia Dortmund's Nelson Valdez (four goals) and Cruz Azul's Cristian Riveros (three) should be adequate replacements if they continue the form that has made Paraguay the top-scoring team with Uruguay so far.

In theory, Brazil should have no problems with a road trip to Venezuela and a home game against Colombia, but this is a team that has not only tied half of its eight games, it has also failed to play the kind of sparkling soccer that Brazilians demand to see. Sparsely admired coach Dunga omitted Ronaldinho from the squad, but at least this week encouraged Kaka to play true to his style in these two games, the AC Milan player having missed all the qualifiers so far through injury. If Elano, Jo and Robinho are selected to start, we will see the barely credible sight of a Brazil team featuring no less than three Manchester City players.

Argentina shares Brazil's 3-1-4 record so far, and in a sign of the need for change, Coach Alfio Basile called up the uncapped San Lorenzo pair Pablo Barrientos and Gonzalo Bergessio for the country's games against Uruguay at home on Saturday, and on the road at Chile Wednesday. It's a shame that Argentina's not playing Paraguay -- Argentine midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme's teammate at Boca Juniors, Paraguayan defender Julio Cesar Caceres, this week questioned Riquelme's motivation, saying that he saved his best play for the national team. Riquelme retorted that Caceres, who made his comments from the safety of the Paraguayan national team camp, had broken "all the codes of soccer."

Colombia will be tested by its two games against Paraguay and Brazil after sacking coach Jorge Luis Pinto last month and replacing him with the country's youth team coach, Eduardo Lara. Mid-table Uruguay has a brace of tough road games in Argentina and then at altitude against Bolivia. Bolivia itself must start winning if it wants to maintain an outside chance of qualification, although it will have been encouraged by a 0-0 draw in Brazil last month. The beauty of this group is that it's almost like a Major League Soccer conference -- you can play poorly for more than half a campaign, then come good at just the right time to grab fourth spot and qualify.

SCHEDULE (rounds 9 and 10)
Saturday October 11 (all times ET)
Bolivia vs Peru ( 3pm)
Argentina vs Uruguay (5:10 pm)
Colombia vs Paraguay (7:20 pm)
Sunday October 12
Venezuela vs Brazil (4 pm)
Ecuador vs Chile (5:55 pm)
Tuesday October 14
Bolivia vs Uruguay (4 pm)
Wednesday October 15
Paraguay vs Peru (5:10 pm)
Chile vs Argentina (8:15 pm)
Venezuela vs Ecuador (9 pm)
Brazil vs Colombia (9 pm)

STANDINGS (after eight of 18 games)
1. Paraguay (17 points) 2. Brazil (13) 3. Argentina (13) 4. Chile (13) 5. Uruguay (12) 6. Colombia (10) 7. Ecuador (9) 8. Venezuela (7) 9. Peru (7) 10. Bolivia (5)

Top four teams qualify automatically for South Africa 2010. Fifth-placed team plays off in a home-and-away series with the fourth-placed team in the Concacaf final round qualifying group.



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