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Last Updated: Monday, 22 November, 2004, 08:03 GMT
Pretenders to the throne
By Tim Vickery

Colombia striker Juan Pablo Angel
Angel is the spearhead of Colombia's attack

Brazil and Argentina are obviously the big two of South American football, but who is the continent's third force?

Once it was Uruguay, but as they have slipped back two nations have come through to dispute the title in very different styles.

From the south of the continent come Paraguay, with their rugged approach and warrior spirit. And from the north come Colombia, with their joyful football, full of flicks and feints.

Since the early 90s there have only been two occasions in which the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, was not won by a club from either Brazil or Argentina.

In 2002 it was lifted by Olimpia of Paraguay, and this year it was the turn of Colombia's Once Caldas.

The contest is also a close run thing at international level.

Paraguay won the Olympic silver medal this year, while in 2003 Colombia reached the semi-finals of the World Under-17 and Under-20 Cups.

At senior level Colombia qualified for the three World Cups of the 1990s, and Paraguay have made it to the last two tournaments.

And 11 rounds into the current qualification campaign the sides are only separated by three points.

There is no doubt, though, that it has been Colombia's year. Twelve months ago, when four rounds had been played, Paraguay sat proudly on top of the table while Colombia were rooted to the bottom.

Paraguay, though, have had a difficult time in the seven rounds played this year, recording only one victory.

Their problem is easy to identify. The goals have dried up. They scored just four times in the seven games.

Next October Paraguay host Colombia in the 18th and final round of the qualification campaign - at stake will also be the unofficial title of South America's third force

Last Wednesday their attack reached rock bottom in the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay.

They failed to register a single shot on target, or even hit a decent cross into the Uruguay area - unthinkable for a team with such power in the air.

Colombia have also had their problems in attack. Half of the goals they managed this year came in one game, a 5-0 rout of Uruguay, and they only scored two more in the subsequent four rounds.

But their defence is the best in South America. Ivan Cordoba and Mario Yepes form a magnificent centre back partnership, and Luis Amaranto Perea is emerging as a defender of international quality.

Colombia conceded just three goals this year, and their record over the seven rounds is better than everyone else bar leaders Argentina.

The momentum, then, will be with Colombia when the qualification campaign moves into its decisive third year in four month's time.

There are strong reasons for believing that Colombia are the better long term bet. It is a much bigger country, with a larger population, and it has plenty of urban centres with big clubs.

Paraguay have less to choose from, and are an ageing side struggling to replace key players. It is true, though, that those who have underestimated the Paraguayans have usually been given cause to regret.

Next October Paraguay host Colombia in the 18th and final round of the qualification campaign. It could well be a crunch match, deciding which of them goes to Germany for the World Cup and which stays at home.

At stake will also be the unofficial title of South America's third force.




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