Brazil's nerves soothed by Edilson

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The Independent Online

At half-time on Sunday the biggest shock in world football was looking distinctly possible. Uruguay had a 1-0 lead over Colombia in Montevideo. Meanwhile, Brazil, nervy and disjointed, were being held by Chile. Had the scores remained unchanged then Brazil's proud record of having appeared in every World Cup would be in serious danger. Even winning their last two games would bring no guarantee of finishing fourth, the last automatic qualification slot.

At half-time on Sunday the biggest shock in world football was looking distinctly possible. Uruguay had a 1-0 lead over Colombia in Montevideo. Meanwhile, Brazil, nervy and disjointed, were being held by Chile. Had the scores remained unchanged then Brazil's proud record of having appeared in every World Cup would be in serious danger. Even winning their last two games would bring no guarantee of finishing fourth, the last automatic qualification slot.

But Arnulfo Valantierra scored a wonderful solo equaliser for Colombia, Brazil finally found some rhythm, and by the final whistle the risk had receded of the four times world champions failing to make it to South Korea and Japan.

Curitiba's driving rain and bracing cold is not the climate normally associated with Brazil. But the pallid football their team served up in the first half has become sadly typical in this troublesome campaign. They made little first-half impression against opposition in a state of turmoil. With a draw and seven defeats from their previous seven qualifiers, Chile had found themselves without a coach. The new man, Jorge Garces, was only appointed nine days before this game, and had to scramble around to raise a squad. After one early chance they offered little threat. And still Brazil struggled, even into the second half, their lack of penalty area presence keenly felt against a side who had come to defend.

The deadlock was broken by Edilson, the slippery striker who only came into the squad when Ronaldo dropped out at the start of the week. The goalkeeper Marcos punted upfield, Rivaldo flicked on, and Edilson outwitted the sweeper and stuck the ball underneath an unwisely advancing keeper.

With nerves settled, the moves began to flow. The half- time substitute Denilson gave a private show on the left wing, and when Cafu crossed from the other flank, Rivaldo completed the scoring with a somewhat ungainly flying volley.

Together with the fact that their closest rivals, Uruguay, could only draw, Brazil's win takes some pressure off their next game, a visit to Bolivia, where the extreme altitude of La Paz makes life hard for the visitors.

Not that Ecuador had problems there on Saturday. Ecuador, also altitude specialists, ended Bolivia's long unbeaten home run (21 World Cup qualifiers) in the most emphatic manner. A free-kick from Hibernian's Ulises De La Cruz put the visitors on the way to a 5-1 win. With traditional whipping boys Venezuela recording their third consecutive victory (3-0 over Peru), Saturday was a wonderful day for the only two sides in the continent who have never reached the World Cup.

If Ecuador are now in sight of Japan and South Korea, Paraguay are closer still. A win over Argentina would have confirmed their qualification, and in a rousing second half in Asuncion they were twice in the lead. Their goalkeeper-cum-deep lying centre-forward Jose Luis Chilavert scored from a penalty, and the midfielder Gustavo Morinigo glanced home a header from one of Francisco Arce's many splendid free-kicks.

Twice, though, Argentina came back. Their first goal looked suspiciously like it had gone in off the arm of Mauriccio Pochettino, but there was no argument about the second. Javier Zanetti burst through the middle, Claudio Lopez had a shot saved, and Gabriel Batistuta celebrated his recall by turning home the rebound.

Paraguay are the only side that Argentina have been unable to beat. Sunday's match was the second time in the campaign that the two teams have fought out a draw of memorable intensity. Argentina are widely talked about as World Cup favourites. No one would put Paraguay in the same bracket, but next year they could give any team a test.

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