Lionel Messi and company desperately need a win in Ecuador on Wednesday to give themselves a fighting chance of qualifying for next summer’s World Cup.
With Jorge Sampaoli’s side in danger of missing out on the global footballing showpiece following their 0-0 draw with Peru on Friday, we ask: Will Argentina qualify for the World Cup?
Let us know what you think as two of our writers debate on the topic.
CHRIS BAILEY, SAYS YES
The situation that Argentina find themselves in is somewhere between perilous and panic-inducing but even though this team is not blessed with artistry, simple mathematics remain in their favour.
Firstly, let’s look at their opponents, Ecuador. Much has been made of the high altitude in Quito but let’s not pretend Argentina are heading to Mars. For a start the elevation is 800 metres lower than La Paz, the capital in the heavens of Bolivia. And neither can Quito be described as a fortress – Ecuador have lost their last two qualification matches at home against Peru and Colombia, two other teams still jostling for a World Cup spot. Added to the fact that La Tri are already out of contention, it’s not as if Argentina need to beat Pele’s Brazil to keep their hopes alive.
Of course, Argentina are hardly Pele’s Brazil either. The 16 goals mustered in 17 qualification matches is a worse record than even bottom-placed Venezuela, while only Bolivia (14) have been more ineffective in front of goal.
However, if Argentina have been mediocre with Lionel Messi, they have proved truly hopeless without him. Messi has missed eight games in the group and La Albiceleste have emerged with just seven points from them. Clearly their chances take a huge shot in the arm with Messi in the team.
Another depressing statistic flying around is their futility from open play, having not scored a goal – aside from set-pieces – in more than five matches. Clearly this is not a unit in sync but just how much longer will that record last when Messi and Paulo Dybala have fired home a combined 26 goals between them already this season?
It would be ludicrous for Jorge Sampaoli to keep insisting that the pair need more time before they can play with each other given they are two of the most potent goal-scorers in world football. Finally, the group situation is favourable. Fourth-placed Colombia and fifth-placed Peru play each other so a play-off is guaranteed for Argentina should they win, and an automatic spot is definitely theirs if Brazil do not coast against third-placed Chile.
It hasn’t been pretty, but don’t cry for Messi just yet – he will be there in Russia.
JAMES PIERCY, SAYS NO
It will be a sad sight to not see Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero or Paulo Dybala at the World Cup next summer but, quite frankly, Argentina don’t deserve to be there.
Past qualification campaigns have seen the dramatic – Martin Palermo’s miracle strike in Peru in 2009 prompting Diego Maradona’s famous slide down the touchline – but this campaign has a certain sense of grim inevitability.
On the surface, this may be a team with a frightening array of goalscoring talent but they aren’t scoring goals now, and haven’t since a 3-0 win over Colombia 12 months ago. What evidence suggests that all of a sudden Jorge Sampaoli will strike upon the right formula and it’ll all click together in Quito?
The statistic that shines brightest is the truly damning indictment that only Bolivia have scored fewer goals than them. Even taking Messi’s suspension into consideration, that is unforgivable.
That they failed so spectacularly in Buenos Aires last week must hang heavy over this group of players. A packed Bombonera was the perfect stage for a show of strength and superiority over Peru only for La Albiceleste to blow it.
If they couldn’t handle the pressure then, how will they manage at altitude with even more at stake.
Sampaoli may well switch around his XI again – with at least one of Dybala and Mauro Icardi surely given a starting berth – but adding even more figures to a team of strangers isn’t going to help cohesion.
Such is the lack of fluidity between midfield and attack, it’s nullifying Messi in more ways than one. He’s not getting any service and in order to manufacture it, he’s having to drop deep, playing as a de facto midfielder. That keeps him out of harm’s way for the opposition. Expect to see plenty of that tomorrow night as the issue needs to be forced. Messi will be ubiquitous but only in areas that give Ecuador time to regroup.
Of course, Argentina can still lose and make the play-offs – with Colombia having to outscore Ecuador in their match against Peru.
That, right now is the only plausible way Argentina are getting anywhere near Russia 2018.
Club managers fear one thing during international breaks: injuries.
While hectic traveling schedules and a loss of momentum are definitely byproducts of the break from club football, there’s nothing worse than sending a player off on international duty and seeing him return unable to slot straight back into the swing of things for his club.
Here are five players who have been injured during the latest international break and could miss time for their clubs.
Expected time out: Two weeks
Manchester United’s injury crisis in midfield has deepened following Marouane Fellaini’s withdrawal in the first half of Belgium’s clash against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday.
United are already missing Paul Pogba, and Michael Carrick is enduring a frustrating recovery from a knock that has been affecting him since the start of the season. Without Fellaini, Jose Mourinho only has Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera as senior midfielders to call upon – and United’s first game after the international break is the derby against Liverpool.
Fellaini will definitely miss that game, as Belgium said the midfielder will be out for “a couple of weeks”.
Expected time out: At least one week
France manager Didier Deschamps hasn’t been able to confirm the extent of the Chelsea midfielder’s injury after Kante came off in the first half on Saturday against Bulgaria. However, Deschamps has said he definitely won’t risk Kante for France’s final qualifier, against Belarus on Tuesday.
Chelsea will hope the reigning PFA Player of the Year isn’t facing a lengthy layoff, as the defending champions are already light in midfield with a busy run of fixtures coming up after the international break.
Expected time out: Unknown
Thiago played 90 minutes for Spain on Friday and even scored a goal during the Iberians’ 3-0 win over Israel, but he has since left the national team camp with an ankle injury suffered in training.
An injury to the midfield maestro will be the last thing new Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes wants, given how important the Spaniard is to the Bavarians’ playing style.
As of now, it’s not known how long Thiago will be out.
Expected time out: At least one week
It was revealed last month that the Liverpool centre-back has been taking pain-killing injections in order to play for the Reds, and injuries to his back and Achilles have eventually caught up to him.
He missed Croatia’s game against Finland on Friday, and will likely ruled out of the crucial qualifier against Ukraine.
Whether he’s kept out of the firing line for Liverpool is a different matter, given he’s been taking injections in order to play. Jurgen Klopp has seen his side deal with a number of defensive issues – and even a fully fit Lovren has been a part of the problem, in that regard – but having one out due to injury will nonetheless be a blow.
Expected time out: Unknown
The Barcelona forward’s injury is different from those of the rest of the players on this list, in that it’s not a new injury suffered in this particular break. Rather, it’s an updated diagnosis on an injury Suarez suffered in preseason. The Uruguay forward returned from that injury to play for Barcelona last month, but has looked ineffective for the Blaugrana so far – and the earlier injury may have something to do with it.
Reports from the Uruguay camp last week suggested that Suarez may be facing a prolonged spell on the sidelines, and could even require surgery on his knee, but he ultimately featured in their qualifier against Venezuela on Thursday and should be good to go for their final qualifying fixture, against Bolivia on Tuesday. But, long-term, the injury may require careful management by both club and country.
English football’s biennial existential crisis appears to have occurred eight months early, as the Three Lions securing their place at Russia 2018 has been met with a grim realisation: we’re just not very good.
A tedious 1-0 win over Slovenia on Friday at a barely-full Wembley has set the bar lower than ever.
The tried-and-trusted tabloid hype machine is still to properly click into gear – and just wait for it if Harry Kane gets anywhere near 30 goals this season or if the Three Lions are drawn against teams whose top-scorer requires a frantic Google search – but there is a sullen feeling around the country.
Where there was once anger is now apathy; a resignation of just how average England have become. The FA should be horrified. Gareth Southgate is the latest manager unable to energise a team who, for the last 8-10 years, has been in terminal decline.
Although when the rot set in is probably up for debate given England’s appalling record in major tournaments outside of their own shores.
Of course, the players who huffed and puffed past Slovenia are vastly different from the ‘Golden Generation’ of Terry, Ferdinand, Neville, Cole, Lampard, Campbell, Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes, Owen and a young Rooney who, at various times in the last decade, were world class players domestically, but rarely replicated it in national colours.
Southgate can only use the tools at his disposal and a dwindling player pool means it didn’t take much before he was left fielding a midfield duo of Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier. Ironically, in style they’re as English as they come.
Committed and combative but neither particularly technically-blessed and with a penchant for David Batty-ing it sideways rather than providing any passing craft in the final third. But we shouldn’t be surprised, even if Kane and Dele Alli can string together a couple of performances in Russia, the best they can hope for is a knockout match.
Even Southgate is already talking up the tournament as a learning curve for his squad – 13 of this 25-man group being 24 or younger – and that is no bad thing, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem that continues to erode the national team.
The two main pillars of the game in England: the Premier League and the FA are as distant as they’ve ever been, the cracks as wide as Southgate’s ever-furrowing brow.
The league where all 25 of his players were drawn from has never been in ruder financial health nor more popular. And yet England as a football nation have arguably never been so poor and forgettable. Richard Scudamore’s role as executve chairman of the Premier League is to maintain the success and financial interest of the product he oversees, and he does it very well.
To achieve that he’s enabled a free-market model open to overseas ownership, which has resulted in the construction of superteams at Manchester United, City, Chelsea and to a lesser extent Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.
An arm’s race in buying players and recruiting the world’s best coaches has ensued and left the national game on the sidelines. Interests lie in growing the global brands of clubs; international football an awkward afterthought of ill-timed injuries and disrupting fixture lists.
And that attitude, as England fall further into irrelevance, is now mirrored by fans. The financial risk of failure is too great for United, City or Chelsea – winners of six of the last eight FA Youth Cup, no less – to patiently wait for homegrown prospects to develop or a young and upcoming coach to learn his spurs.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, at the other end of the table where relegation comes with a financial hit. That’s why we have a situation where an inexperienced Southgate is in charge of the England team and if he were to leave, the best alternative would probably be Burnley’s Sean Dyche.
A fine manager but indicative of the lack of feasible options out there. That is what’s happening at macro level. Below, we have academies matching their first teams in terms of cosmopolitan talents, and just last week it was revealed the cost of loaning a young player from a top Premier League club for a season was around £750,000.
Guess what the answer tends to be. This then overvalues English players who make the breakthrough, via luck or judgement, and they are rewarded contracts in excess of £50,000 after just a handful of appearances, earn quick caps, and the self-determination to succeed becomes ever-harder.
It’s a never-ending cycle of the Premier League expanding with the bubble indirectly bursting on the national team. One is leading the other, when it should be a relationship of mutual benefit. It’s all as disjointed as any of Henderson crossfield passes.