South American sides gather African intelligence
Tournaments are like time speeded up - teams can suddenly come together, or fall apart.
Each tournament has its own dynamics, so it would be unwise to draw definitive conclusions for the World Cup from a competition taking place six months earlier.
But if the Africa Cup of Nations is a good opportunity for five World Cup-bound teams to get some competitive match practice, it is also a great chance for their future opponents to do some reconnaissance.
From a South American point of view, there's the possibility of Uruguay meeting Nigeria in the second round, just as Paraguay might face Cameroon, and Chile could come up against Ivory Coast.
And there is the certainty of two clashes in the group phase that look more intriguing with every passing minute in Angola.
Brazil will be wary of the threat from Ivory Coast's talisman Drogba
The story of World Cup meetings between South America and sub-Saharan Africa begins, and for the next few months, ends with 3-0 victories for Brazil in Germany.
Zaire were out of their depth. They had some nice technical touches but looked like they had never seen a cross before and were even seemingly unsure about some of the rules. Ghana, like the other African first timers four years ago, were full of players with top-class European experience.
Ivory Coast, who Brazil meet in Johannesburg on 20 June, go one step further. Their squad is all based with top European clubs, and many of them also played in the last World Cup. That dreaded word 'naive' can be struck from the records.
Of all the sub-Saharan teams to have gone for the 4-3-3 system, Ivory Coast look the best prepared to carry it out. The lone striker's role is not easy, but Didier Drogba has the all-round game to fill it with distinction.
His team look for him with the long diagonal pass that he chases down the channels. This could create problems for a side such as Brazil, who love to push the full backs forward.
But Drogba can also be a decoy, moving wide and pulling the defence across, creating space for Gervinho and company to play their way through the other channel.
This could be a game, then, where the experience and positional sense of Gilberto Silva could be important for Brazil, identifying and plugging the gaps that the Africans seek to create.
Ivory Coast, though, are likely to spend more time worrying about the Brazil attack than vice-versa. The Brazil fashioned by current coach Dunga are full of confidence and clear on their method of play - although the rebirth of Ronaldinho now presents Brazil's coach with a challenge.
How can the Milan man be re-incorporated in the side?
Playing him and Kaka together has often proved a problem. It certainly didn't work behind two strikers in the last World Cup.
Then, Dunga tried a line of Kaka, Ronaldinho and Robinho behind a lone striker, and that was not a conspicuous success either. There was a feeling that the three got in each other's way.
So strong on the counter, Brazil functioned better when Ronaldinho was replaced by a mixed midfielder, freeing right back Maicon to burst from deep.
So what now? Ronaldinho for Robinho? Or leave Ronaldinho on the bench, a one man plan B for when things get tough?
It's a lovely problem to have. Diego Maradona would love this kind of dilemma to be his biggest headache as he seeks to prepare his Argentina team for the World Cup.
But he has far more fundamental issues to wrestle with - stuff like who will be in the line up and how are they going to play. Plenty of big decisions will have to be taken before Argentina kick off in Johannesburg on 12 June against Nigeria.
Their first World Cup opponents have not had an easy start to the Africa Cup of Nations. Saturday's 1-0 win over Benin was unconvincing - Argentina will surely swamp Nigeria in midfield if they play like that in South Africa - and their confidence had clearly been affected by their opening 3-1 loss to Egypt.
But for the first 30 minutes against the Egyptians, Nigeria had looked impressive. Jon Obi Mikel was directing some nice diagonal passing through midfield and bringing striker Chinedu Obasi into the game, while Taye Taiwo charged forward powerfully from left-back.
In the end Egypt exposed their flaws; with the Nigerian midfield not putting enough pressure on the ball and the centre-backs badly positioned, Egypt could get behind them with one pass. And once Egypt had control of the game, they could sit deep and spring the counter.
I wonder if Maradona might have been inspired by the Egyptian performance. Perhaps the most serious problem he faces is sorting out Argentina's defensive system.
Maradona has been in South Africa inspecting facilities
In the absence of quality full backs there must be a temptation to go with a back three - as Egypt did against Nigeria.
That way he can defend deep so that the lack of pace at the back is not exposed, and he can have three in central midfield (Javier Mascherano, Juan Sebastian Veron and I would have thought that Ever Banega would be pushing himself in front of Fernando Gago).
Jonas Gutierrez can run with Taiwo down the right, and the passing range of Veron and Banega can spring Angel di Maria down the left, or Lionel Messi wherever he can find a hole. The shape of the team would be vaguely similar to the one in which Maradona won the World Cup as a player in 1986.
So if he wants to turn the clock back to the mid '80s, perhaps Argentina's coach should work like an Egyptian.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) Paraguayan international striker Salvador Cabañas is repeatedly being linked with a move to Europe. Do you think the time is now right for him? Would he be suited to English football? I personally think that he could become one of the top 10 or 15 strikers in the world.
A) I think he's probably left it a bit too late to achieve the target you've set for him. He's 30 in August, so by the time he's got himself adapted the finish line is all too close.
If he's something of a late developer it's because he went through a positional change. He was a young midfielder in Paraguayan football, but on his journey through Chile and Mexico was converted into a striker.
People realised that, although he's small, he can shine up front because with that stocky frame he's hard to knock off the ball. He receives the ball well, turns well, shoots with terrific power - an excellent striker.
But I do wonder about Europe at this stage. What's the motivation? Does he think he has time to construct a career in Europe, or is it all about the money?
Q) Do either of Manchester United's full-back twins Rafael or Fabio have a chance at getting called up by Brazil for the World Cup 2010?
A) An outside bet at best. Rafael's problem is that Brazil are currently full of right-back options - Maicon and Daniel Alves are in the squad, and then there's Rafinha around as well. Injuries would seem to be his best chance.
Left-back is the problem position, and if Fabio was getting the playing time Rafael had had, then he would have a real chance.
Interestingly, back in Brazil Fabio was the one who was much more highly rated. I suppose that the form of Patrice Evra has got in his way.
The World Cup is full of last minute call up stories (and there's an excellent precedent for this with Brazilian full backs. Anyone remember Josimar in '86?). But as it stands the twins will have to wait for 2014.