Messi and Co one loss away from Russian catastrophe
Thursday's goalless draw against Peru leaves Lionel Messi and his beleaguered band of brothers in need of a positive result in the drowning altitude of Quito next Tuesday to keep alive their chances of qualifying for the World Cup finals.
Despite their fumbling qualification campaign - the dropped points at home to Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela, the blunt attack that has produced fewer goals than any of the other South American nations barring Bolivia, and the obvious lack of cohesion under a third manager - most had still held the belief that, come what may, Messi would be in Russia.
Now, after racking up more than 450 minutes without a competitive goal from play, belief has made way for hope and mathematics.
With just one game remaining, Argentina sit outside even the fifth-placed play-off spot, grateful that Paraguay's dramatic late comeback against Colombia means that their fate is still in their own hands.
Victory in Ecuador will be enough for Jorge Sampaoli's side and a draw might do, depending on other results. But the complications for La Albiceleste to overcome go well beyond the simple climatic problems that Quito poses.
The Argentinian Football Association (AFA) tried to do their bit by switching Thursday's game to Boca Juniors' iconic La Bombonera.
The vociferous, bear-pit of a stadium was supposed to lift the players and give Argentina that slight edge. But, while the supporters fulfilled their side of the bargain, the players predictably didn't.
Instead, Peru were able to summon the ghost of 1969, when a 2-2 draw booked a place at the 1970 World Cup and condemned Argentina to their only failure to reach the tournament.
Forty-eight years later, history hasn't quite repeated itself but Argentina suffered the same old problems that have plagued them in this campaign.
Against Venezuela one month ago, only a Rolf Feltscher own-goal salvaged a point for them after another tepid performance.
The AFA may have finally got the right man but it was painfully clear it would take time and that was the one thing that Sampaoli didn't have.
There were some bright moments, but once again Argentina were left to rue missed chances and looked totally dependent on Messi.
With 'Papu' Gómez and Angel Di María naturally looking inside rather than providing quality width, it was left to the Barcelona star to negotiate the packed central midfield in order to create.
Two clear chances for Dario Benedetto, another for Gómez and one for substitute Emiliano Rigoni were fashioned by Messi and squandered as frustration grew.
Argentina's captain wasn't completely blameless in front of goal, hitting a post from a position that would ordinarily see the net bulge a second later.
And on the occasions that La Albiceleste did find a way through,the impressive Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was equal to it.
Now, D-Day awaits in Quito, and Messi and Co will find the going tough in more ways than one. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service