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South American World Cup Qualifying: Finally, the real Argentina is stepping up

Messi celebrates with teammate Higuain after scoring during World Cup qualifying soccer match in Buenos Aires

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (R) celebrates with teammate Gonzalo Higuain after he scored a goal against Ecuador during their World Cup qualifying soccer match in Buenos Aires June 2, 2012. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)


Argentina was a bit of a joke during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. The continent’s most talented squad (thanks in part to Dunga’s selection policies with Brazil) spent much of qualifying on the brink of elimination. Who would have thought bringing in Diego Maradona to coach the team would be their saving grace, though the Argentine icon’s managerial naivete cost the Albiceleste in South Africa.

Two years and two head coaches later, Argentina looks set to compete with Uruguay for the top spot in CONMEBOL. Not that the honor means much. With four of the tournament’s nine teams earning spots along side Brazil in World Cup 2014, first is as good as fourth.

For Argentina, a team looking to justify its place amongst the continent’s elite, finishing atop the South American table may mean something. The team is looking to reclaim some prestige lost last summer, when rival Uruguay won Copa America on Argentine soil. On the back of last cycle’s turmoil (and the Uruguyans’ success in South Africa), Argentina is in danger of losing their place as Brazil’s offset.

It says something about the depths to which Argentina has fallen that their continental standing’s now a secondary concern. Since Alejandro Sabella took over for Sergio Batista after the Copa debacle, it’s been back to basics: Figure out how to get the most out of the country’s talent.

In the previous cycle, the mix in midfield was so ineffective that their wealth of attacking stars could not be utilized. Only after that issue is addressed can Argentina worry about how far they’ve fallen behind Uruguay.

That’s why Saturday’s result was so encouraging.

All matches took place over the weekend.

Argentina 4-0 Ecuador

ARG: Sergio Aguero 20', Gonzalo Higuain 30', Lionel Messi 32', Angel Di Maria 76'

At the end of the last qualifying cycle, Argentina needed goals from Martin Palermo and Mario Bolatti to clinch a spot in South Africa. Now (finally), the guys who are supposed to be scoring are getting the ball. And the results are as you’d expect: Big goal totals at home against opponents Argentina is expected to dominate.

With the win, Sabella has Argentina at the top of CONMEBOL qualifying. More important, he’s on the verge of addressing the team’s first, bug issue. Having produced two four-goal performances in five games, Sabella seems to be figuring out how to get the most out of his immense attacking talent. Soon, he can worry about Brazil and Uruguay.

The only bad news: Aguero was booked for diving. The yellow card means he’ll miss Argentina’s upcoming qualifier against Paraguay. I guess they’ll just have to find a way to get by with Messi, Higuain, and Ezequiel Lavezzi.

Uruguay 1-1 Venezuela

URU: Diego Forlan 38', VEN: Salomon Rondon 84'

Uruguay remains the only undefeated team in qualifying, even after their first stumble. With 10 points through four games, they’re averaging as many points-per-match as tournament-leading Argentina, making this result easy to write off. Although Oscar Washington Tabarez might chide his team for being lulled into a false sense of security (the match saw few scoring chances), the result is more noteworthy for Venezuela’s accomplishment than Uruguay’s failing.

Venezuela have never qualified for a World Cup (the only CONMEBOL nation to hold that dubious honor), thought they did made a semifinal appearance in last year’s Copa. In a cycle that could see six South American teams make the finals, the Vinotinto expect to make history.

While it’s still early, a point in Montevideo means something. Not only does it give Cesar Farias’s side a result where they would have expected nothing, it shows they can get points on the road against the tournament’s toughest competition. If that truly is the case, there’s no reason Venezuela shouldn’t qualify for Brazil 2014.

Bolivia 0-2 Chile

CHI: Charles Araguiz 45+3', Arturo Vidal 83'

Bolivia is the tournament’s worst team, but they canget results in the altitude of La Paz, making this more than an obligatory result for Chile. La Roja also kept a clean sheet, a significant accomplishment for a team that had allowed 10 goals in their first four qualifiers.

There is a more subtle story that may be of interest. Charles Araguiz, in his fifth appearance for the national team, scored his first senior level goal. A part of Chile’s highly successful Universidad de Chile side, Araguiz was one of four La U players to start for Claudio Borghi. If Universidad can translate any of their club success to the national team, Chile could be in line for another World Cup appearance.

Peru 0-1 Colombia

COL: James Rodriguez 52'

I’m going to preface my Colombia thoughts by admitting I may be reading too much into this result; however, this victory highlights two very important differences between this Cafeteros side and the one that disappointed last cycle. First, FC Porto’s James Rodriguez is ready to embrace stardom, something that will help balance out what had previously been a forward-heavy side. Second, head coach José Pekerman gives Colombia somebody who can engineer these kinds of results.

For Peru, the result’s a big wake up call. The worst team in qualifying for 2010, Peru had modest hopes of success this cycle, having reached the semis of 2011’s Copa. Although Sergio Markarian had seen his team lose two of their first three qualifiers, those loses came on the road. Now, however, Peru has dropped points, and they didn’t drop them to a continental power.

Markarian can point to a rash of injuries as reason for the result, but if Peru has aspirations toward nicking one of the last qualifying spots, they need to find a way to claim points in these matches (no matter the obstacles).