BUENOS AIRES Argentina booked their World Cup ticket with a 5-2 rout of Paraguay on Tuesday, leaving five other countries jockeying for three automatic South American places and one playoff berth.
Colombia, in second place in the nine-nation group, needed a mere point on Tuesday but it eluded them in a 2-0 defeat by Uruguay, who visit Ecuador next month for what looks like being a straight clash for the fourth automatic berth.
Chile, who had a bye and drew 2-2 with World Cup holders Spain in a friendly, are in third place two points ahead of Ecuador and Uruguay with outsiders Venezuela hovering in sixth and hoping for a slip up from their rivals.
Argentina's Lionel Messi, who scored two penalties in the win over Paraguay, said it was good for his country to have qualified but there was still a lot of work to do if they wanted to win the World Cup next year.
"There are seven matches (to win) a World Cup and you've got to be 100 percent, you can't make a mistake or you'll remain out of it," he told reporters.
"We have passed tough tests, beating some top teams but there's a long way to go to becoming world champions, we still lack some things," added Messi, whose goals in Asuncion made him joint top scorer in the nine-nation group with Uruguay's Luis Suarez on 10.
Striker Gonzalo Higuain, who has nine goals, was suspended but Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Maxi Rodriguez also got on the scoresheet for coach Alejandro Sabella's team.
Suarez, having scored twice in Friday's 2-1 win in Peru, failed to find the net on Tuesday at the Centenario, where fellow striker Edinson Cavani - with his second goal in three qualifiers - and Cristian Stuani were the scorers.
Coach Oscar Tabarez's substitutions, bringing on Stuani and midfielder Gaston Ramirez, helped unlock the Colombia defense in the final quarter of an hour.
"We were looking to give the team the means to better control Colombia and try to create problems for them," Tabarez told the post-match news conference.
"If Colombia had gone ahead, then it would have been tough because of their good ball control. I think the (first) goal practically ended their hopes."
Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said he thought Uruguay would make it through to Brazil and again be a strong challenger, as they were when they finished fourth at the last World Cup.
"Uruguay will again have the level they had in South Africa and in the (2011) Copa America," the Argentine told reporters.
"They have that category of great players but also a spirit and fortitude they always put to the test."
The Atahualpa, at 2,800 meters above sea level in Quito, will be a tough venue for Uruguay to try and secure a direct passage to the finals but they have won there in the past when facing possible elimination.
Ecuador could have been far more comfortable but dropped two points in a 1-1 draw against eliminated Bolivia in La Paz.
Both Ecuador and Uruguay are three points ahead of Venezuela, who have only one match left at home to Paraguay on October 11.
Venezuela have to hope one of Uruguay and Ecuador fail to pick up any more points if they are to sneak into a playoff against Asian qualifiers Jordan for a shot at their first trip to the finals.
(Additional reporting by Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Malena Castaldi in Montevideo, Diego Ore in Caracas, Alexandra Ulmer in Buenos Aires, editing by Nick Mulvenney)