MONTEVIDEO, September 10 – The chances of two-time World Cup champions Argentina failing to make the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970 shortened as they were beaten 1-0 by Paraguay in Asuncion which saw the victors reach their eighth finals.The defeat will inevitably raise further questions over the stewardship of coach Diego Maradona – an Argentinian playing icon for his inspiring them to the 1986 trophy and to the 1990 final – as the Argentinians slipped to fifth in the table with just two matches remaining to seal one of the two remaining automatic qualifying places.
However, despite having individual talents on the pitch such as Lionel Messi, Maradona also either left out of the squad entirely or deigned not to put on the bench Lisandro Lopez, Esteban Cambiasso and Walter Samuel to name but three of several.
Instead he had opted to put on the bench 35-year-old striker Martin Palermo – who won the last of his seven caps in 2000 and professed to be lost for words when he heard of his selection – and 36-year-old central defender Rolando Schiavi, who went even further on hearing of his selection by phoning Maradona to ask if it was a hoax.
However, Maradona refused to accept that he had made any mistakes and went on the attack against his critics.
"I am not afraid of criticism. I am afraid of nobody. I am doing my job, I have my team and I am going to go forward," said Maradona, who has overseen four defeats in his six World Cup qualifiers since taking over.
"Since I have been 15-years-old, I have been scared of nobody. Now I am 48 and I am going to continue to battle with them (the press)," added Maradona, whose side face a home game against tailenders Peru and then a daunting away trip to Uruguay in October.
Ironically the two substitutes almost combined to grab an unlikely point – the Argentinians task made harder by the 53rd minute sending-off of veteran midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron – in the dying minutes but Schiavi could not quite get his outstretched boot to Palermo’s downward header.
Paraguay deserved their victory with a scintillating first-half display capped by a stunning goal from Nelson Valdes, who played despite a nagging knee injury.
Earlier Argentina had slipped to fifth because Ecuador had beaten Bolivia 3-1 in La Paz.
Ecuador’s victory – which included a goal by Manchester United’s big summer signing Antonio Valencia – sees them edge closer to a third successive place at the World Cup finals.
Chile were unable to join Paraguay in the finals as they lost 4-2 away to already qualified Brazil, thanks largely to a hat-trick by the rarely used 25-year-old Villarreal striker Nilmar.
The Chileans – seeking a first appearance at the finals since 1998 – had pulled themselves back from 2-0 down to 2-2, thanks to a double from Humberto Suazo.
However, Nilmar struck twice to end Chile’s hopes of bringing to an end Brazil’s proud record of never losing a home World Cup tie and their 35-year-old unbeaten home record in competitive matches.
The one good piece of news for Argentina was that Uruguay beat Colombia 3-1 in Montevideo.
Had Colombia won they too would have moved above Argentina, but were unable to gain their first away win of the series while Uruguay prevailed after a run of four matches without a win.
In a fiery encounter both sides had one player sent-off, Uruguay’s Carlos Valdes in the 30th minute when they were leading 1-0. The visitors were also reduced to 10-men when striker Teofilio Gutierrez was red carded for deliberate handball at the start of the second-half.
Uruguay wrapped up victory in the 88th minute largely thanks to the persistence of Atletico Madrid star Diego Forlan as he chased what seemed a lost cause when a shot was deflected and was heading out.
However, the veteran striker got to the ball and cut it back inside for Sebastian Eguren to rifle the ball home and rub salt into Colombia’s wounds as his goal was the winner against the same opponents earlier in the campaign in what remains the Uruguayans sole away victory.
Uruguay’s win sees them climb above Colombia into sixth, a point behind Argentina.
Venezuela, the only South American side never to appear at a World Cup finals, also moved to a point of Argentina with a fine 3-1 home win over bottom side Peru.