The once unfathomable prospect of a World Cup without Lionel Messi and Argentina could become reality on Tuesday as South America’s thrilling 2018 qualification battle reaches its climax.
Two years after the Albiceleste kicked off their troubled campaign with a 2-0 defeat at home to Ecuador, Jorge Sampaoli’s side travel to Quito to face La Tri once more with their hopes hanging precariously by a thread. The two-time World Cup-winners head into the final round of games in sixth place overall, outside the top four positions which grant automatic qualification and trailing fifth-placed Peru, who occupy the play-off spot, on goal difference.
Yet with only two points separating third-placed Chile (26 points) with seventh-placed Paraguay (24), any number of permutations are possible.
The Albiceleste can simplify the equation for their fans, however, if they manage to take all three points. A victory would guarantee they finish no worse than fifth place, putting them into a two-legged play-off against New Zealand they would be expected to win.
But achieving victory in the thin air of Quito, which is 2,850 metres (9,350 feet) above sea level, may be easier said than done.
The Albiceleste have an abysmal record in away games against Ecuador, with their last victory in Quito coming in 2001. Since then in World Cup qualifying games, Argentina have been beaten twice, in 2005 and 2009, before scraping a 1-1 draw in 2013.
Moreover, Argentina face their moment of truth after a series of uninspiring performances that has left the rest of the footballing world scratching its head at how a squad bristling with so much attacking talent has found scoring so difficult.
'Hanging on'. Despite being able to call upon Messi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Mariía throughout the campaign, Argentina have only scored 16 times in 17 games.
Last Thursday’s 0-0 stalemate with Peru in Buenos Aires was the national team’s third consecutive draw. The Albiceleste have now scored only once in their past four qualifying games.
Sampaoli attempted to break that cycle last week with the surprise selection of Dario Benedetto in attack, a gamble that failed to pay off after the Boca Juniors striker missed a string of chances. It is unclear whether Sampaoli will persist with Benedetto again on Tuesday.
While Messi and his team-mates attempt to adjust to the lung-busting challenge of playing at altitude, millions of compatriots will be holding their breath.
If Argentina and Lionel Messi need sympathy, they won’t find much from Brazil. Forward Gabriel Jesus said this week: “If they are where they are, it’s because of what they have done. Of course, you talk about Messi, one of the best players football has ever had. But we have to think about only ourselves.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Chile could seal their qualification with victory over Brazil in São Paulo. Brazil have already qualified for the finals and are guaranteed top spot.
Uruguay meanwhile need only take a point in their home qualifier against already-eliminated Bolivia to be certain of progressing.
One of the most high-stakes games comes in Lima, where Peru will aim to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 1982 when they take on Colombia, who were were moments from qualifying for the World Cup last Thursday before two last-gasp goals from Paraguay turned a 1-0 win into a 2-1 defeat.
That win kept Paraguay's qualification bid alive and a home win over Venezuela on Tuesday could see them seal their place to Russia depending on results elsewhere.
Get out the calculators. It's number-crunching time for Argentina and the six other South American countries still vying for places in next year’s tournament in Russia.
The top four teams in South America advance automatically, and the fifth-place team has the chance to advance from a play-off next month against New Zealand, the representative of Oceania.
Brazil has already qualified with 38 points. Uruguay is next with 28 and is widely expected to qualify. That leaves five teams with varying prospects: Chile (26), Colombia (26), Peru (25), Argentina (25), and Paraguay (24).
Tuesday’s matches will all start at the same time: Ecuador-Argentina, Brazil-Chile, Peru-Colombia, Paraguay-Venezuela, and Uruguay-Bolivia.
If teams are tied on points, the tie-breakers in order are: overall goal difference; overall goals scored; points in matches between tied teams; goal difference in matches between tied teams; goals scored in matches between tied teams; away goals scored in matches between tied teams; “fair play points” based on yellow and red cards. And if that won’t solve it, get set for the drawing of lots.
Here’s what the respective teams need:
ARGENTINA – If the national team wins, it is guaranteed at least a play-off with New Zealand, and that result might also yield an automatic berth. Even a draw could get an automatic berth – but only if Colombia beats Peru, Paraguay fails to beat Venezuela, and Chile loses to Brazil by at least two goals. A draw could also yield a play-off for Argentina. A loss even leaves the door slightly ajar for a play-off spot. For that to happen, Paraguay must fail to beat Venezuela, and Peru must lose to Colombia by a larger margin than the margin of Argentina’s loss.
URUGUAY – Uruguay is already assured of at least a play-off though, in reality, the team is virtually a cinch for a top-four finish. The only way for Uruguay to fall to fifth is: it loses to Bolivia, plus Chile, Colombia and Argentina all win – and Argentina scores at least nine goals to overtake Uruguay on goal difference.
CHILE – A victory guarantees Chile –two-time defending Copa América champions – its third straight World Cup berth. A draw would also be enough to get an automatic spot if Peru and Colombia draw, and Argentina fails to beat Ecuador. A draw would be good enough for a play-off spot if Argentina wins, and there is a winner in the Peru-Colombia match. Chile can also reach an automatic berth, or a play-off, with a loss. But every contingency must fall right.
COLOMBIA – Colombia gets an automatic berth with a victory at Peru – regardless of other results. A draw would also be good enough if Argentina wins, or Chile loses in Brazil. A loss might also be enough for a play-off, but this would require other results to fall in Colombia's favour.
PERU – Peru can qualify for its first World Cup since 1982 if it wins at home against Colombia, unless Chile beats Brazil, and Argentina beats Ecuador by a margin greater than Peru's margin over Colombia. A victory would guarantee Peru at least a play-off. A draw and even a loss could be enough for a play-off spot, depending on other results.
PARAGUAY – Paraguay needs the most help. It must win against Venezuela to have any chance at the play-offs. It will be out with a draw or a loss.