Friday, September 11, 2009

Argentina: Things Not as Bleak as They Seem

There is consternation around the globe concerning Argentina, and the idea that a nation with so much soccer talent -- Messi, Tevez, Aguero, Datolo, Mascherano, Zanetti, Heinze, etc. -- and two World Cup championships on its resume might miss South Africa 2010.

We can see how that fear might creep into the conversation. Argentina looks lost on the pitch, has lost four of its last five matches in qualifying, and has fallen to fifth place in the South America standings.

Only the top four South America finishers are guaranteed berths to 2010, and Brazil and Paraguay already have locked up two of those four, with Chile one victory away from getting the third.

But things aren't quite as dire for Argentina as it might seem, and here's why:

--The fifth team out of South America goes into a home-and-home playoff with the fourth-place team out of Concacaf, the North America group. A couple of weeks ago, No. 4 from the northern half of the Western Hemisphere looked as if it might be a pretty decent team. Maybe even Mexico. But Costa Rica currently is fourth after a fairly shocking three-match losing streak in which it has been outscored 8-0, losing 4-0 at Nicaragua, 3-0 home to Mexico and 1-0 at El Salvador. The Ticos, then, are a team that suddenly seem eminently beatable.

--Argentina's next match is at home, where it rarely loses, and is against regional bottom-feeder Peru. Even with a trained chimp as manager -- and that pretty much sums up Diego Maradona's qualifications as coach -- Argentina ought to be able to win that one. That's three points.

--The nation ahead of Argentina in the standings, in the No. 4 spot, is Ecuador, which is solid but not monolithic. Ecuador finishes with a home match against Uruguay (which is one point behind Argentina), and at Chile -- which may need the victory to clinch qualification. That is, Ecuador is no lock to take three points out of its final two matches, especially when we consider that even playing at home in Quito, altitude 9,000 feet (2,800 meters) Ecuador has won only half of its eight matches, with three ties and a defeat. To Venezuela. Thus, a victory at Peru might be enough to get Argentina up to a fourth-place finish.

--The nation behind Argentina is Uruguay, and Uruguay goes to Ecuador on Oct. 10 and then finishes at home against Argentina. The way to bet here is that 1) Argentina defeats Peru at home, 2) Uruguay loses at Ecuador and 3) Argentina goes to Uruguay needing only a tie to finish ahead of Uruguay -- in fifth place, and a home-and-home with fading Costa Rica.

--Venezuela, formerly known as a baseball country, also is only one point behind Argentina but might be a bigger danger, despite a tougher final two matches. It is home against Paraguay and at Brazil, and if those two show up interested in a result (both already are in), Venezuela will be hard pressed to get more than one point. Brazil, basically, can beat anyone anywhere, even if it doesn't play its A team -- as in its 4-2 thrashing of Chile on Wednesday, when fourth-choice striker Nilmar scored three goals.

--Colombia is still in the picture, too, with 20 points, two behind Argentina. But Colombia finishes at home with Chile -- which will be looking to clinch a qualifying spot -- and at Paraguay. Colombia also has struggled to score, with only 10 goals in 16 matches, and you can't win without scoring at least one.

To sum up ... if Argentina can defeat Peru, while playing at home, it is very likely to get to South Africa 2010. Even with Diego Maradona still coaching. (If he is replaced, things have to get easier, right?)

Assuming a victory over Peru ... even if the Argentines lose to Uruguay, they will be passed only if Uruguay has already gotten a result out of Ecuador ... or if Venezuela or Colombia win both of their last two matches.

Yes, certainly. Any one of those scenarios could happen. The point being, it's not likely. Then fifth-place Argentina goes home and home with Costa Rica and is a heavy favorite to win, even if Costa Rica does (when it is feeling giddy) like to consider itself the Brazil of Central America.

Cry for Argentina only if it somehow loses to Peru, at home. If that happens ... well, it doesn't really deserve to be in the World Cup this time around. Lionel Messi or not.

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