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.