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Road to South Africa: Maradona's low blow

How Diego Maradona must wish that out of sight meant out of mind in World Cup qualification.

The Argentina head coach has encountered few problems on home turf, but his side's woeful away form has put its participation in next year's tournament in doubt.

The rarefied air of Quito, Ecuador, was the scene of Maradona's latest setback on Wednesday, as Argentina suffered a 2-0 defeat to follow a 6-1 thrashing in Bolivia during the last time it played at altitude.

An Argentinean public that celebrated joyously when its former playing hero was appointed last year is quickly learning that Maradona's magnificent touch and skill of yesteryear does little to help him on the sidelines.

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His biggest crime must surely be in preparation. Argentina has a team packed with superstars, including Lionel Messi, now considered by many to be the world's finest player, yet in recent qualifiers, he and his colleagues have appeared to be taken by surprise by the tactics of better-prepared opposition.

This job was supposed to be Maradona's calling, the position that would finally help him conquer his personal demons and recapture the total adoration of his nation. That scenario can still happen, of course, if he takes the team to South Africa and emerges triumphant.

At this stage, though, the target for Maradona and Argentina is immediate – avoid the kind of humiliating exit that would be seen as a national disgrace.

Here we take a look at the latest World Cup qualifying around the globe. An asterisk denotes a team that has already qualified.

North and Central America

Costa Rica took control of the Hexagonal group with its victory against the United States, though both those teams look set to qualify comfortably. Bob Bradley's USA has been far from convincing, however, and done little to suggest it can pose any kind of serious threat at the World Cup. Mexico's struggles continue, with El Tri languishing in fourth place behind Honduras.

Predicted qualifiers: Costa Rica, United States and Mexico.

South America

Brazil's class is starting to show as it threatens to pull clear at the top. While Chile has emerged as a likely qualifier after an excellent run of results, Paraguay and Argentina have put themselves in danger. Those four should all have enough firepower to go through, though Ecuador and Uruguay cannot be discounted.

Predicted qualifiers: Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador (via playoffs).

Africa

Don't be surprised to see some unfamiliar faces representing Africa at the World Cup. After a third of the qualifying stage, traditional powers such as Morocco, Cameroon and Egypt are in desperate trouble and look likely to miss out. Gabon is the shock leader of Group One, with Tunisia, Ghana and the Ivory Coast all faring well in other groups.

Predicted qualifiers: Gabon, Tunisia, Zambia, Ghana and Ivory Coast.

Europe

Still no problems for England, Spain and Holland, which became the first European nation to qualify. Things are still looking difficult for Portugal, Sweden, Czech Republic and Turkey, though. They'll all need a dramatic revival to even secure a playoff spot for qualification. France's hopes of going directly through hinge on a slip-up from an impressive Serbian side, while Slovakia looks poised for a surprise trip to South Africa.

Predicted qualifiers: Holland*, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia and Italy; France, Portugal, Croatia and Russia (all via playoffs).

Asia

Australia, Japan and South Korea have already qualified for the finals after putting together a solid campaign. The second bid in Group Two will go to the winner of Saudi Arabia's clash with North Korea. However, Iran could still sneak in if those two nations draw and may still get through via playoff.

Predicted qualifiers: Australia*, Japan*, South Korea*, Saudi Arabia and Iran (via playoffs).

Oceania

New Zealand has already won the weakest of all regions, but it will be a heavy underdog when it takes on the fifth-placed Asian team for a place in the finals.

Predicted qualifiers: None.