Diego Maradona, stunned to find himself in serious danger of failing to take Argentina to the World Cup, vowed yesterday to fight on as he watched Paraguay join Brazil in South Africa next year.
"I will not be broken," Maradona said after a 1-0 loss to Paraguay in Asuncion left Argentina in fifth place in the 10-nation South American group, equivalent to a two-leg playoff with the CONCACAF's fourth-placed nation.
Maradona's Argentina, a weak sum of talented parts, were overtaken in fourth place by Ecuador, who won 3-1 away to a Bolivia team already out of the running.
Chile are also above Argentina in third but were unable to secure their qualification when they lost 4-2 to leaders Brazil's second string team in Salvador.
The top four qualify for the finals while the scrap for the playoff berth also involves Uruguay, who beat Colombia 3-1 in Montevideo, and Venezuela, both with 21 points, and the Colombians on 20. Venezuela beat bottom team Peru 3-1 at home.
"I didn't imagine being in this position, I'd like to be higher but that's our reality and I'm going to face it. We still have a chance," Maradona told reporters.
He said going into the next match at home to Peru in October without playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron, who was sent off early in the second half in Asuncion, "doesn't change anything.
"We must start to do the jigsaw puzzle again but Argentina has the players to get us out of this... we had lots of injured players but now we hope to recover them."
He praised Paraguay's scorer Nelson Haedo and fellow striker Salvador Cabanas, who have five goals apiece in the qualifiers, for their fine performance.
Paraguay's Argentine coach Gerardo Martino said: "It was a long time since Paraguay had played as well as in the first 45 minutes today.
"We had great motivation to play against Argentina because they are great rivals and it's something special."
While Maradona resorted to sending out as substitutes 36-year-old new cap Rolando Schiavi in defence and 35-year-old striker Martin Palermo, who missed three penalties in one Copa America match in Paraguay 10 years ago and had won the last of his previous seven games for Argentina in 1999, Dunga revelled in Brazil's strength in depth.
"When the score was 2-2 (after Chile's equaliser) the crowd hushed but the team knew how to react," he said of his team's victory secured with a hat-trick by 25-year-old striker Nilmar.
"Today we have players who really want to play in the Brazil team, committed players. They turned the situation round themselves," Brazil's coach told reporters.
He said Nilmar, who seized his chance in the absence of five first-choice players through suspension and injury, was "a player who carries out what you ask him to do and a little more too."
Chile's Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa said his side, like so many when they come up against Dunga's Brazil, succumbed to counter-attacks when they were on top.
"In two breaks they turned over the result when conditions were good for us," he said, adding that a win away to Colombia or at home to Ecuador in their last matches would see Chile through to their first World Cup since 1998.