BUENOS AIRES // Diego Forlan and Martin Palermo scored last-gasp goals as Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador switched places in a dramatic penultimate series of South American qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup to set up a delicately poised final round on Wednesday. Diego Maradona's Argentina, having beaten Peru 2-1 at home in torrential rain, go to Montevideo to defend an automatic qualifying berth against a Uruguay side who turned the tables on Ecuador.
Ecuador had started the day in fourth place, but their 2-1 home defeat by Uruguay left them sixth before their visit to Chile, who took South America's third berth with a 4-2 win in Colombia. Maradona called veteran striker Martin Palermo a hero after his goal three minutes into stoppage time gave Argentina victory. "I thought we were liquidated, but at that moment I forgot about Palermo," a relieved Maradona said of his desperation in the agonising minutes between Hernan Rengifo's last-minute equaliser for Peru and Palermo's winner.
Forlan converted a penalty with the last kick of the game in Quito to give Uruguay their victory after recovering from a goal down but coach Oscar Washington Tabarez was quick to tell his players the job was not yet done. "We are going to take things calmly and come out of our joy quickly to think about Argentina," Tabarez said. Uruguay must win to swap places with Argentina and qualify for their first finals since 2002, sending their cross-river neighbours into the play-off against the team that finishes fourth in the Concacaf region, either Costa Rica or Honduras.
Ecuador, though, are not out of the running. Argentina (25 points) could even miss out altogether if Uruguay (24) and Ecuador (23) win. Venezuela's hopes of reaching the finals for the first time took a blow as they lost to 2-1 to Paraguay. They are not out of it mathematically but their chances are extremely poor. "We must recognise that the Paraguayans are one of the best teams of the qualifiers," said Venezuela's coach Cesar Farias, who had just returned from coaching the Under 20 side at the World Cup in Egypt.
Chileans celebrated reaching the finals for the first time since 1998 with a team revived by the methodical coaching of Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, a foreign national hero. Bielsa, whose Argentina side flopped as favourites in 2002, made an inspired substitution after half an hour in Medellin. Chile had fallen behind but Bielsa sent on Jorge Valdivia, Al Ain's playmaker, for Matias Fernandez and Chile went 2-1 up within four minutes and did not look back, eliminating Colombia.