“Not going to the World Cup would be the biggest catastrophe in Argentina's history,” an irate voice on Argentinian television barked in the aftermath of yet another evening of frustration and disappointment for La Albiceleste. 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 on Tuesday; failure to do so would make the seemingly impossible, a reality.
Despite Argentina’s fumbling qualification campaign, the dropped points at home to Paraguay, Ecuador and Venezuela, the blunt attack that has produced fewer goals than all the 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 open play and only a point from Thursday’s visit of Peru, belief has made way for hope and mathematics.
With just one game remaining, Argentina sit outside even the fifth-placed playoff spot, grateful only for Paraguay’s dramatic late comeback against Colombia, that fate is still in their own hands. A victory away to Ecuador will be enough for Sampaoli’s side -- a draw even, depending on 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 on their part to solve this 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 and while the supporters fulfilled their side of the bargain, the players predictably couldn’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. 48 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 Argentina after another tepid performance. The Argentinian Football Association (AFA) may have finally got the right man but it was painfully clear it would take time and that was the one thing that Jorge Sampaoli didn’t have.
For the must-win clash with Peru, the personnel available was more or less the but Sampaoli rang the changes. His favoured back three was scrapped for a 4-2-3-1, albeit with midfielder Marcos Acuña as a make-shift left back, the inform Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez came into the side and local hero Darío Benedetto was preferred in the number nine role over the continued experimentation with a Messi-Icardi-Dybala trident.
There were some bright moments but once again Argentina were left to rue missed chances and looked dependent on Messi as instigator-in-chief. With Gómez and 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 Benedetto, another for Gómez and one for substitute Emiliano Rigoni all fashioned by Messi and all squandered as frustration grew. Argentina’s captain wasn’t completely blameless himself in front of goal, hitting the post from a position that would ordinarily see the net bulge a second later. On the occasions La Albiceleste did find a way through,the impressive Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was equal to it.
Sampaoli may remain confident of a result in Quito and lament his side’s bad fortune but it was all painfully familiar. Yes, Fernando Gago’s injury five minutes after coming on denied a final throw of the dice from the bench but his introduction could have been questioned regardless when chasing the game and there was certainly no guarantee that an extra forward would have yielded a goal.
Whether it be Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Lucas Pratto or Darío Benedetto as the side’s number nine, Argentina have struggled for goals. Averaging less than a goal a game, Lionel Messi is the side’s leading scorer despite missing half the matches and defender Gabriel Mercado is second.
Did Argentina create enough chances to beat Peru? Absolutely. The same could be said of Venezuela last month but through three managerial changes, results have barely changed.
Ever since Mario Gotze’s injury time winner in the Maracana in 2014 denied Argentina a World Cup, and the subsequent agonising Copa América defeats, the question has been asked if Argentina will provide a team capable of helping Messi achieve the one prize that eludes him. As the chances of that have diminished over the past year, remarkably it’s now at a point when possibly the greatest player of all-time will not even be in Russia.