Maradona in spotlight as climax nears

MONTVIDEO: Argentina coach Diego Maradona will be in the spotlight as six South American countries battle for the final berths for the 2010 World Cup final starting on Saturday.

With Brazil and Paraguay already assured of their tickets to South Africa, Argentina and five others will be vying for the two remaining automatic qualifying spots with the fifth-placed team going into a play-off.

Argentina, who have been further weakened by squabbling between Maradona and general manager Carlos Bilardo, need to beat Peru on Saturday, in the penultimate qualifier. A defeat in Buenos Aires against Peru, who are already out, would not end Argentina’s World Cup dream. But it would make their task extremely difficult before their visit to Uruguay on Wednesday, who could also still be looking to qualify if they draw against Ecuador at the weekend.

Footballing legend Maradona acknowledged that after a disastrous qualifying campaign his job was

on the line and he might quit after their must-win qualifiers. Maradona even sought divine intervention as he pondered Argentina’s chances of reaching the World Cup finals.

“The bearded one (God) saved me many times before — and I hope he will do so this time,” said Maradona. Argentina are five points behind third-placed Chile (27) with Ecuador on 23. Sixth-placed Uruguay (21), Venezuela (21) and Colombia (20), are also in the running for qualification. Bolivia (12) and Peru (10), are already ruled out, but will be eager to ensure that they avoid the humiliation of finishing last in the standings.

One of the two automatic qualifying spots looks certain to go to

Chile, who will qualify if they beat Colombia on Saturday. For the

other, Argentina are trailing Ecuador and are just one point ahead of Uruguay and Venezuela. Maradona’s side must also be wary of Colombia who are just two points behind them. The slightest slip up will mean Argentina fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1970.

Argentina don’t need to be reminded of that nightmare after what has been a trying time for the team this week after Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta picked up a hamstring injury on Monday. The incident revealed a simmering row between the Argentina coach and Bilardo, who Maradona reportedly blames for not travelling to England to ensure that Zabaleta was freed earlier by his English team.

Maradona’s main worry will be the configuration of his team. He has called up 78 players since his appointment a year ago, but is still looking for the right mix, and has given the nod to debutants Liverpool defender Emiliano Insua and Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain. He has also recalled Pablo Aimar to try and help Lionel Messi work some miracles for Argentine. Uruguay, who play Ecuador on Saturday, will have every incentive to win as they can still grab fourth spot and an automatic finals berth.