Diego Maradona's head was placed firmly in the guillotine by Paraguay on Wednesday night as Argentina's hopes of securing qualification for the World Cup next year were left hanging by a thread.
Maradona's star continues to wane
Diego Maradona's head was placed firmly in the guillotine by Paraguay on Wednesday night as Argentina's hopes of securing qualification for the World Cup next year were left hanging by a thread. A 28th-minute strike by Nelson Haedo Valdez secured a 1-0 win for the hosts in Ascuncion, aided by Juan Sebastian Veron's dismissal for the visitors, which confirmed Paraguay's place in next summer's showpiece event in South Africa alongside Brazil, who have already qualified from the South America region.
The win leaves Argentina clinging on to fifth spot - with only the top four teams automatically qualifying - just one point ahead of Uruguay and Venezuela, with Maradona's side set to meet the former in their final qualifier next month. The team finishing in fifth place in the South America group will go into a two-legged play-off against the team who finishes fifth in the CONCACAF region, most likely El Salvador.
Maradona praised his conquerors and said he knows he needs to iron out his side's faults and fast if they harbour hopes of making it to South Africa. "Paraguay played well, particularly [Salvador] Cabanas and Haedo Valdes," he said. "We must re-start and do the puzzle again. I didn't think we were going to be we are. I wanted to be higher (in the table). "This is the reality we must live and I will face it like always in my life. We still have a chance and we are holding it."
Maradona's reputation in his homeland is at an all-time low. The fans and the media are turning on their one-time idol. His tenure in charge of the national team has heralded a disastrous run of results which has seen them lose four of their last five qualifiers and leaves them in danger of missing out on their first World Cup finals since 1970. However, despite his side's latest setback, the 1986 World Cup-winning captain remained defiant.
"I don't fear critics. I don't fear anybody," he added. "I do my job, I coach my team and I will keep going ahead. I've been battling critics since I was 15. Now I am 48 and I will keep fighting journalists." Gerardo Martino, Paraguay's Argentine-born coach, said his side's next goal was to top the group. Paraguay are three points behind Brazil, who ran out comfortable 4-2 winners against nine-man Chile in Salvador thanks to a Nilmar hat-trick and a Julio Baptista strike.
"We have not played this way for a long time. To play Argentina is an extra motivation, it is like playing Boca or River when you are in Argentina," Martino said. "Now, we want to win the World Cup qualifiers. It is our second goal. In the national team, you work for two possibilities - you can work for having a job or for making history. I want to work for the second option." Ecuador climbed above Argentina into fourth place with a 3-1 away win over Bolivia. Goals from Edison Mendez, the Manchester United midfielder Antonio Valencia and Christian Benitez saw them win 3,600 metres above sea level in La Paz. In Montevideo, Uruguay defeated Colombia 3-1. The Ajax forward Luis Suarez put the Charruas ahead before Jackson Martinez levelled. Late goals from Andres Scotti and Sebastian Eguren secured the win with three minutes remaining. Venezuela kept their hopes alive as a brace by Nicolas Fedor and a Ronald Vargas goal helped the Vinotinto beat already-eliminated Peru 3-1.
* With agencies