World Cup Round-Up: Argentina breathe again as Palermo fires vital winner

Late goal from recalled veteran has Maradona's side in sight of World Cup finals
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The Independent Online

The prospect of Argentina missing next summer's World Cup finals receded on Saturday night after they defeated Peru 2-1 with an extremely late goal from substitute Martin Palermo.



The result means that a draw in Montevideo against Uruguay on Wednesday should be enough for Diego Maradona's side to reach South Africa and avoid the ignominy of being the first Argentina side not to reach the finals for 40 years.

Their match-winner, Palermo – who turned in a deflected shot from the right by fellow substitute Federico Insua in the fourth minute of stoppage time – knows a thing or two about ignominy. He has the dubious honour of featuring in the Guinness Book of Records for missing three penalties in a single international match against Colombia in the 1999 Copa America.

As a result, the Boca Juniors striker was cast into the international wilderness for a decade until Maradona took charge and recalled him for the qualifier against Paraguay last month.

His goal on Saturday came after debutant Gonzalo Higuain had put Argentina ahead two minutes into the second half from Pablo Aimar's through-ball but, as driving rain became steadily worse at the Monumental in Buenos Aires, Peru equalised in the final minute through substitute Hernan Rengifo.

Maradona, who performed a Klinsmann-esque dive on the pitch at the final whistle, hailed Palermo as a "miracle maker". "Palermo has saved us and our chances of qualifying are intact," the national coach said.

"When the wind and rain and cold began and allowed Peru to draw level, we could not do anything, but the miracle of Palermo has given us a longer life. The goals I scored were normal, Palermo makes miracles."

While Maradona and Argentina's football-mad population will have to sweat it out for a few more days to discover whether they will go to South Africa, Chile sealed qualification on Saturday, beating Colombia 4-2 away in Medellin. The defeat meant Colombia cannot now reach the finals. Last night Brazil, who have already qualified, lost 2-1 to Bolivia at altitude in La Paz, although the vistors did field a largely second-string side. It ended Dunga's run of 11 successive wins as manager.

In addition to Chile, seven other nations qualified over the weekend meaning 19 of the 32 places on offer in South Africa have now been filled. In Europe, Germany achieved what England could not do two years ago and defeated Russia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to win Group Four. Miroslav Klose's first-half goal was enough to see the Germans home. Russia enter the play-offs.

In Group One, Cristiano Ronaldo's great start to the season came to a halt when he went off injured during the first half of Portugal's 3-0 win over Hungary in Lisbon. It was confirmed yesterday the World Player of the Year had aggravated an ankle strain and is likely to be out for up to amonth for Real Madrid, as well as miss Portugal's game with Malta on Wednesday. Carlos Queiroz's side need to win to be sure of a play-off place after Denmark won the group by beating Sweden 1-0. A Jakob Poulsen goal 11 minutes from time was the difference between the Scandinavian nations, finishing precisely after a cross by Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner.

In Group Seven, Serbia reached their first major tournament as an independent nation by hammering Romania 5-0. That result meant France's demolition of the Faroe Islands was academic, though will ease some – but not all – of the pressure on under-fire coach Raymond Domenech as Les Bleus guaranteed their play-off spot with a 5-0 victory. André-Pierre Gignac set France on their way with two first-half goals, and William Gallas extended their lead after the break. Late goals from Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema settled matters.

In the Concacaf region, Mexico qualified with a 4-1 win over El Salvador. Mexico will now appear at their fifth straight finals and it completes an outstanding turnaround after their poor start to the campaign under Sven Goran Eriksson.

The United States also booked their place in South Africa, but struggled to beat lowly Honduras. They were trailing 1-0 away and had Conor Casey to thank for turning the game around. The Colorado Rapids striker was a surprise starter but struck twice as the States won 3-2.

Also to reach the finals were Ivory Coast who had an equaliser from Chelsea's Didier Drogba to thank for rescuing the point they needed against Malawi.

World Cup qualifiers: How it stands

* Europe Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Serbia, Spain

* North America Mexico, United States

*South America Brazil, Chile, Paraguay

* Africa Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa (hosts)

* Asia Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea

Who can still make it?

* Europe Six from Portugal/Sweden/Hungary (Group One), Switzerland/Greece/Israel/ Latvia (Group Two), Slovakia/ Slovenia/Czech Republic/Northern Ireland (Group Three), Russia (Group Four), Bosnia (Group Five), Ukraine/Croatia (Group Six), France (Group Seven), Republic of Ireland (Group Eight), Norway (Group Nine).

* North America One (plus one play-off place) from Costa Rica and Honduras

* South America One (plus one play-off place) from Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Venezuela.

* Africa Three from Cameroon/ Gabon, Tunisia/Nigeria/ Mozambique, Kenya, Algeria/Egypt.

* Asia/Oceania One from New Zealand v Bahrain play-off (First leg was 0-0 in Bahrain on Saturday, second leg on Wednesday).

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