Germany 2006 will be the first World Cup where the holders have had to go through the gruelling qualification campaign. And when your region is South America then gruelling is the only way to describe it.
Ten teams from the continent that embraces football like no other, slog it out home and away for four automatic qualification spots plus one playoff against, probably, Australia.
As usual Brazil and Argentina are out in front with Argentina having a two point advantage over the holders with the others fighting amongst themselves.
Whilst this may at first glance seem like the regular South American campaign, the vast improvement of the rest of the continents teams has lead to a more exciting competition than usual.
Brazil drawing with Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Columbia and Paraguay as well as losing to Ecuador had given Argentina the chance to qualify first (between Argentina and Brazil this means bragging rights up until the tournament) when the two giants of world football met on the 8th June in Buenos Aires.
Argentine manager Jose Pekerman, has consistently got his tactics spot on throughout qualifying and at the Estadio Monumental it was no different. After 18 minutes Argentina had had two shots on goal. Both went in. The first was down the right; with the Brazilians too focussed on defending the threat of Juan Pablo Sorin on the left, Man United’s Gabriel Heinze could find Juan Roman Riquelme. Milan’s lethal finisher Hernan Crespo via a pinpoint pass from Luis Gonzalez finished off the move. The ever impressive Riquelme scored the second himself when an unsettled Brazilian midfield allowed him to turn and fire home a powerful left foot strike.
With Adriano and Robinho marked out of the game and the ageing Roberto Carlos and Cafu ineffective of the wings, Brazil’s game fell apart to the extent that Crespo added his second and Argentina’s third before half time.
As expected, the second half saw Argentina sitting on their well-earned three goal lead and Brazil trying to tear them apart. For all their persistence Brazil could only muster a trademark Roberto Carlos power drive, but it was only a consolation, albeit a glorious one.
So at the top Argentina go through with an impressive victory over their bitter rivals whilst Brazil must wait and see. Elsewhere the battle really is for third, fourth and fifth place with three points separating four teams with three games to go.
Ecuador lead the way following decent victories over the top two despite losing to Columbia who currently occupy the playoff position. Paraguay lie fourth but their inconsistencies could cost them as qualification nears the end. Wins against Chile and Bolivia have been coupled with defeats to Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay.
Columbia and Chile are level on 20 points and at the moment it seems like the final playoff will be between those two. However the difference between South America and all other qualification regions is that with three games to go even bottom side Bolivia could qualify. Anything could happen but the current standings seem to represent the probable outcome with just the final playoff place to really be contested.