MONTEVIDEO (AFP) – Argentina scraped into the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Uruguay as Diego Maradona finally celebrated mission accomplished after a stumbling, lacklustre qualifying campaign.
The two-time champions needed a goal by substitute Mario Bolatti on Wednesday six minutes from time to earn the three points and secure the fourth and final qualifying spot from South America.
|Argentina's Sebastian Dominguez (L), Lionel Messi (C) and Javier Mascherano celebrate at the end of their FIFA World Cup South Africa-2010 qualifier match against Uruguay. (AFP photo)|
Brazil, Chile and Paraguay had already made sure of their places in the finals.
Uruguay finished in fifth and now face a play-off against Costa Rica, who finished fourth in the CONCACAF region behind USA, Mexico and Honduras, to decide their World Cup fate.
In a poor match with few opportunities, the crucial moment came when Uruguay were reduced to 10 men when Martin Caceras was red-carded for a foul on Jonas Gutierrez.
From the ensuing free-kick, Juan Sebastian Veron had a shot charged down, but Bolatti, on the field for just four minutes after replacing Gonzalo Higuain, reacted quickest to the loose ball to beat Nestor Muslera in the Uruguayan goal.
Maradona, who had used over 70 players since taking over a year ago, opted to leave Carlos Tevez on the bench alongside Martin Palermo, who grabbed the last-minute goal which saw off Peru on Saturday.
"I thank the team and the fans, who crossed the River Plate, for the privilege of taking Argentina to the World Cup," said Maradona, who was in combative mood at his post-match news conference.
"But there were people who did not believe in us and who treated me like rubbish."
Uruguay, needing a win to make sure of automatic qualification, were on top early with Argentina unsurprisingly nervous and defender Gabriel Heinze picking up a booking after just nine minutes.
Andres Scotti almost gave the home side the lead at the famous Estadio Monumental, but his header slipped by Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero's post.
Lionel Messi, who has yet to shine under Maradona despite his scene-stealing performances for Barcelona, attempted to catch out Muslera with a long distance free-kick.
The goalless half-time stalemate suited Argentina as Ecuador, the only other rivals for the last qualifying spot, were also being held 0-0 at the interval by Chile in Santiago.
The low-quality affair continued after the break with the first opening not coming until the 73rd minute when Diego Lugano headed wide from a pinpoint Diego Forlan free-kick.
Uruguay continued to press against an Argentine team happy to pack seven defenders behind the ball as the clock ticked down before Bolatti, in just his third international, put his country into the finals.
In Santiago, Chile took the lead against Ecuador thanks to a 51st-minute strike from Humberto Suazo. Ecuador, who had Segundo Castilla sent-off, needed to win to keep their qualifying hopes alive.
Five-time champions, and group winners, Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw at home by Venezuela and they too finished with 10 men after Sao Paulo defender Miranda was red-carded.
Paraguay also ended on a low note, losing 2-0 at home to Colombia.
Rock-bottom Peru completed their programme with a 1-0 win over Bolivia, who had defeated Brazil at the weekend, thanks to a second-half strike from Johan Fano.
It was Bolivia's 38th qualifier away from their high-altitude fortress of La Paz without a win.
Fano, meanwhile, was later sent-off.