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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 08:28 GMT 09:28 UK
South American race hots up
By Tim Vickery

Colombia striker Juan Pablo Angel
Colombia forgot that to get the best out of Juan Pablo Angel the Aston Villa striker needs to be surrounded with quick players

South America's World Cup qualification campaign has reached the half-way stage.

The 10 teams have all played each other once, and a glance at the table reveals an interesting fact.

The top four places - the automatic qualifying slots - are filled by the same countries that took them in the 2002 campaign.

This is hardly a surprise in the case of Brazil and Argentina.

With their tradition and sheer quantity of wonderful players they would have to be very incompetent - as Brazil were last time - to flirt with disaster.

But not many would have predicted that Paraguay and Ecuador would be back in the top four.

Making it through to the last World Cup seemed more likely to mark the end of an era. Both had ageing sides.

For Paraguay 2002 looked like the swansong for the generation that had come up through the 1992 Olympics.

But this year's silver medal in Athens has shown that new faces are emerging.

And even when they are below par they have a natural resilience which enables them to grind out results where other sides would lie down and accept defeat.

They have plenty of home games still to play, and a win in Asuncion against Peru on Wednesday will leave them with one foot in World Cup 2006 in Germany.

Ecuador are still a long way from safety. At times they have fallen below the standard they set when they made it to their first World Cup two years ago.

Uruguay defender Paolo Montero
Montero is a key man if Uruguay want to qualify

But, astonishingly, they have the best defensive record in the competition. And though they have lost all their away games, the hardest ones are now out of the way.

Their chances of a World Cup place cannot be written off.

Who are the likely challengers from below? Chile are a rugged side, but they lack quality unless all of the best players are fit and available.

Uruguay have plenty of dangerous strikers, but have conceded an alarming 23 goals in their 9 games.

So much depends on veteran centre-back Paolo Montero, a magnificent defender who quietly organises everyone around him.

He has only played once in the competition - one of the two times that Uruguay have kept a clean sheet. More was expected of Colombia.

Their clubs are doing well in South American competitions - they reached the semi-finals of the World Cups at both Under-17 and Under-20 levels - but such form is eluding the senior side.

Their problems are in attack. On Saturday they had Paraguay on the ropes but were unable to land the knockout blow.

They forgot that the way to get the best out of Juan Pablo Angel is to surround the the Aston Villa with quick players.

Colombia have great strength in depth in a number of positions, but those two dropped points could prove very significant.

Then there is Venezuela, who despite their 5-2 defeat to Brazil are still making progress.

Peru's powerful strikers must come good sooner or later, and Bolivia are sure to pick up points at the extreme altitude of La Paz.

No one is out of the running. Everything is still to play for as South America's marathon campaign moves into its second half.

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