Paraguay lead the pack in South America


Despite a substandard performance at Germany 2006 and a drubbing at the hands of Mexico at this year’s Copa America, much was expected of Paraguay coming into this new qualifying campaign. So far, at least, the Guaraníes have not disappointed and have picked up 10 points

Since their opening-day draw in Peru, the Albirrojos have strung together three straight wins, including impressive victories over Uruguay in Asuncion, and Chile in Santiago.

So why the sudden reversal in fortunes? assesses the situation.

For one thing, the Paraguayan defence looks watertight again, shipping just a single goal in four games, while up front, the team have a variety of attacking options, borne out by the nine goals scored thus far, a tally no other side has bettered.

Only marginally less pleased with their start will be second and third placed, Argentina (9 points) and Brazil (8), who have been slowly accumulating points in the face of sky-high expectation.

Even so, the Albiceletse have been criticised for playing below their potential, this despite exhibiting very good football in passages, even during their defeat in Colombia.

The decision of coach Alfio Basile to bring in Martin Demichelis for the retired Roberto Ayala has been vindicated, as has his preference to go with Javier Mascherano in midfield, a tactic that has helped get the most out of playmaker Juan Riquelme, joint top scorer thus far in the qualifiers with four goals.

Brazil’s situation is even more interesting, with Dunga managing to keep winning games even as he continues to rebuild the side. By placing more emphasis on the team as a whole, the coach has taken pressure off Ronaldinho and Kaka, handing more responsibility to the likes of Robinho, Vagner Love and Luis Fabiano.

Though reproached by some of their fans for lacking sparkle and beauty, Brazil have learned to win without always playing well, as shown in the recent victory against Uruguay at the Maracana.

Colombia, also with 8 points, have been one of the revelations of the region’s qualifiers to date. After a poor Copa America, Jorge Luis Pinto's side are again looking secure at the back, thanks in no small part to goalkeeper Miguel Julio and left-back Ruben Bustos, who is also earning a reputation as a free-kick specialist.

True, they may not boast many big-name stars, but the Cafeteros are proving highly effective: with just three goals scored, they are fourth in the table and still unbeaten.

Venezuela (6 points) in contrast, have been on an upward curve for many years now and showed this again with deserved wins in Ecuador and at home to Bolivia.

Their performance in the latter of these wins was particularly impressive, showing as it did the character and resolve of their players in coming from behind to win late on. That said, the recent departure of long-standing coach Richard Paez, and the appointment of Cesar Farias as his replacement, has raised question marks about the team’s future prospects.

In Chile (4 points), meanwhile, the talk is of new eras and rebuilding. Coach Marcelo Bielsa has experimented with an aggressive three-striker formation, but the heavy defeat suffered in Santiago at the hands of Paraguay has shown the team needs more time to adapt to this strategy.

That said, with the return of veteran forward Marcelo Salas, the striking prowess of Humberto Suazo and the contributions of youngsters like Matias Fernandez, Carlos Villanueva and Arturo Vidal, La Roja have plenty of quality to draw on in the months ahead.

The situation is not dissimilar in Uruguay.

Under the guidance of Oscar Tabarez, the revamped Celeste (also with 4 points) are emerging as a disciplined and balanced side with trademark battling qualities.

If the coach can manage to blend the experience of of Fabian Carini, Diego Lugano and Sebastian Abreu with the youthful enthusiasm of Vicente Sanchez and Luis Suarez, then it is unlikely they will repeat the mistakes made in November in Rio de Janeiro, when they had the Seleção on the ropes for long periods only to end up losing the game.

Without question, Ecuador (3 points) have been the main under-achievers thus far in the qualifiers.

With the same squad and coach that did so well at Germany 2006, LaTricolor somehow managed to lose their three opening fixtures, a sequence that saw Luis Fernando Suarez become the first coaching casualty of the South American qualifiers.

His replacement Sixto Vizuete has made an immediate impact, however, winning his first game in charge at home to Peru to relieve some of the pressure.

Two other sides to have less than encouraging starts are Peru (2 points) and Bolivia (1 point).

Their respective FAs have both gambled on former international stars - Jose del Solar in the case of Peru and Ewrin Sanchez for Bolivia - to head up long-term national projects, but neither has managed to win a game thus far.

And while Peru did have their moments against Brazil, and Bolivia came very close to stealing the points in Venezuela, neither have been able to placate their fans, and the task of mounting a realistic bid for qualification now looks harder than ever.

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