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Sep 13, 2012

Hello, is it Messi you're looking for?

The last few days have been eventful in terms of breaking long-standing sporting runs in the Americas. A Brit winning a major tennis tournament is undoubtedly the most visible of those in the Anglophone world, it's true, but the last two rounds of South American World Cup qualifiers have thrown up one or two as well in a race that's becoming increasingly congested as we approach the halfway point in the campaign.

It's tricky to know where to start, in fact - or it would be if it weren't for the outstanding result of last Friday's round of matches, Colombia's 4-0 demolition job of Uruguay. Prior to that game, Uruguay were unbeaten in 19 matches, a national team record - a record that becomes even more impressive when factoring in the great sides Uruguay have had in their history. The result in Barranquilla, good though Colombia clearly were even before the game, was a jaw-dropper.

Man-of-the-moment Radamel Falcao Garcia of course weighed in with a goal but was overshadowed by his striker partner Teofilo Gutierrez, who might not be a European household name, but as I wrote earlier this year is infamous, more than famous, down here in Argentina. Teo scored twice in the win, including his side's second, two minutes into the second half, which was a major blow to Uruguay, who'd made a competitive fist of the first half after Falcao had opened the scoring within a couple of minutes of kick off.

Uruguay were then held in Montevideo on Tuesday, 1-1 by Ecuador, in a match their manager Oscar Washington Tabarez had said they had to win after that defeat to Colombia. All the same, the Copa America winner and man who led them to the semi-finals of the last World Cup should be safe in his job for a little while yet.

Argentina also ended a run, though in their case it was a more positive one - their 3-1 win over Paraguay on Friday was their first home win against those opponents since 1973, and gave them breathing space at the top of the table. It also saw Lionel Messi become the first Argentine in a decade to score in six consecutive internationals (Hernan Crespo was the last).

After all four home sides won their matches on Friday (the two already mentioned, plus a 2-1 win for Peru over Venezuela and a 1-0 victory for Ecuador over Bolivia in a fixture referred to by absolutely no-one as the high-altitude derby), none of the hosts on Tuesday managed to win. Uruguay, as mentioned above, were held by Ecuador, or rather held them - Edinson Cavani equalised after they'd conceded another early goal. "We know we've not played well in these matches," Tabárez said afterwards. They'll have to pick up their game for their next match: in a month's time, they visit Argentina, in Mendoza.

Argentina, for their part, drew 1-1 away to Peru, a result they just about deserved in what was by some distance their worst performance in almost the last year. And Messi's run, too, came to an end in that match - he didn't manage to score (Gonzalo Higuain got Argentina's goal), and thus missed out on a potential record because, as far as I've been able to ascertain, no-one has scored in seven consecutive matches for Argentina's full national team.

The reaction to that result in Buenos Aires, though, has been muted compared with the vitriol released earlier in Alejandro Sabella's reign, when Venezuela managed their shock win, or when Bolivia held them to a draw earlier in the campaign. Messi has put in so many stellar performances for his country in the last year that he's allowed a merely average one these days, and while many still feel Sabella is a more cautious manager than he needs to be - partly, at least, because every other man in Argentina seems to think Peru's national side would be incapable of getting a result against a team of primary school kids - there was a refreshing lack of tweets containing hashtags like "#chauSabella" ("See you, Sabella") during Tuesday's match.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Paraguay's poor World Cup qualifying campaign got worse as they lost 2-0 at home to Venezuela - the visitors are putting themselves in with a real chance of qualification at this stage - and Colombia came from behind in Santiago to beat Chile 3-1. That match brought the second stunning free kick of this double-header: after Messi's brilliant 30-ish-yarder that went in off the post against Paraguay, James Rodriguez smashed one in for Colombia's equaliser.

Apart from their free-kick-taking ability and a common link to Argentina - Rodriguez played a few seasons for Banfield here in Buenos Aires before moving to Porto - the two share one other characteristic: surprising naming provenance. Of the many things that are reported about Messi, perhaps the least-mentioned is that he's named after Lionel Richie, whilst Rodriguez is - brilliantly - named after James Bond, even though South Americans pronounce his first name 'Ham-es'. And I swear, dear reader, I've not made either of those quite excellent facts up.

On, however, to more mundane - albeit relevant - things, and the standings. In spite of that disappointing draw away to Peru, Argentina are still top of the standings, by one point, and have both the joint best attack (shared with Uruguay) and the joint best defence (shared with Colombia). They have 14 points, Colombia and Ecuador 13, Uruguay and Chile 12, and Venezuela - who've played a game more than everyone else - have 11. With four automatic places plus a play-off place up for grabs, it's still anyone's race, particularly if we get any more rounds like the one just gone in which no-one seems to want to win it. Peru (seven points), Bolivia and Paraguay (four each) all need rather more of an upswing in fortune to join the party, though.

Almost halfway through the South American marathon, then, all we really know is the strugglers. It'll take another few rounds before the field starts to separate out at the top.

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