Maradona in spotlight in battle for World Cup

MONTEVIDEO: 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 next year, Maradona's Argentina and five other teams 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 tailenders Peru, who are already out of the running, would not end Argentina's World Cup dream. But it would make their task extremely difficult before their visit to dangerous rivals 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.

The beleaguered football legend 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.

The 1986 world champion famously dubbed his first quarter-final goal in that year's competition the work of the "hand of God".

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.

And the South American press has fired up the controversy even further by claiming that referees are being put under pressure to ensure that Argentina, World Cup champions in 1978 and 1986, qualify automatically.

"The only thing that worries me is the referee," said Peru strike Johan Fano.

But Maradona's main worry will be the configuration of his team.

The former play-maker 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 up 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 in the group and an automatic finals berth.

"We're all dreaming of going to the World Cup. We have to get through these two matches to make it happen," said coach Oscar Tabarez.

"It's difficult but not impossible."

Chile look assured of their spot in the World Cup for the first time since 1998 in France, and can qualify directly if they beat Colombia on Saturday and if Ecuador or Argentina lose.

Colombia need to win against both Chile and Paraguay to be in with a chance of making the fifth-place play-off against the fourth-placed Central American zone team.

Ecuador, meanwhile, are also dreaming of qualifying for their third consecutive World Cup finals. But they must beat Uruguay on Saturday, a result which would practically assure them the play-off spot and take a point from Chile in Santiago next week.

Venezuela have a difficult task to qualify for their first World Cup. They first need to beat Paraguay and four days later topple Brazil.