Argentina tackle crucial match as they look over abyss

FootballBuenos Aires  - Argentina are in serious danger of missing the 2010 World Cup in South Africa as they approach the last two rounds of the South American qualifiers, based both on their recent results and on their performances on the pitch.

In a very tight edition of the region's qualifiers, only Brazil and Paraguay have so far secured World Cup places. There are two direct spots still at stake, as well as the chance to play a team from North or Central America or the Caribbean in a play-off with the winner advancing to the World Cup.

Brazil have 33 points from 16 games, to Paraguay's 30. Chile are currently third in the rankings with 27 points while Ecuador stand fourth with 23 points, followed by Argentina on 22 points, Uruguay and Venezuela with 21 each and Colombia at 20.

With a remaining two rounds of play by Wednesday, eight of the region's 10 teams still have a chance to play in South Africa.

And as things stand ahead of those crucial games, Argentina - a football-crazy country that won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986 - would need to endure the play-off.

The giant coached by football legend Diego Maradona and theoretically led on the pitch by Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi desperately needs to lift its level in a key match against Peru Saturday in Buenos Aires.

Messi, arguably the best player in the world but who has repeatedly failed to live up to expectations in Argentina's blue and white shirt, will get another chance to become a national hero. This time, he is set to team up in attack with Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain, in his first cap, with benfica veteran Pablo Aimar as a creative midfielder.

"We are not yet out of the World Cup," Maradona said after the 1-0 loss to Paraguay in September.

Since then, the coach went to Italy for two weeks of weight loss treatment and Argentine media repeatedly slammed Maradona and his men alike.

Many have argued that Maradona - an undisputed genius when he was a player - is clueless on the bench, and that players are "mercenaries" who lack sufficient motivation when they are not playing for money.

Even FIFA president Joseph Blatter told the German Press Agency dpa that he thought Argentine players were "disconcerted" on the pitch and "did not know what to do."

There were rumours about Maradona's resignation, and the coach even hinted that he might not hold on to the job at the end of the qualifiers.

The atmosphere around Argentina is tense, and pressure on the side will be huge as they host Peru, the worst team in the qualifiers.

"For us nothing is easy. We have just lost two qualifiers in a row," Carlos Tevez noted.

He stressed that Argentina need to win its two remaining games to secure a place in South Africa.

In other matches Saturday, Venezuelan host the already-qualified Paraguay; Ecuador host direct-rivals Uruguay; and frontrunner Chile visit Colombia. In all cases, the chance to keep alive the dream of South Africa is set to spice up play.

On Sunday, Bolivia are set to host Brazil in a game with nothing at stake, other than the desire of Carlos Dunga's men to impress their coach and the fans in the hope of a place in the World Cup squad.

"We won the confederations Cup, we beat Argentina in Rosario and we qualified for the World Cup. But if we do badly in these two matches we will be criticized," right-back Maicon said of Brazil's demanding fans.

On Wednesday, the final round of qualifiers also appears to guarantee suspense and competitive play, with the matches Uruguay- Argentina, Brazil-Venezuela, Paraguay-Colombia and Chile-Ecuador. With nothing at stake, Peru are set to host Bolivia in a clash of South America's worst two sides.  dpa