Here’s how things stand in CONMEBOL heading into Tuesday’s final qualifying matches:
The top four teams from South America qualify for the World Cup — Brazil already has sealed its bid and Uruguay is almost certain to do so — while the fifth-place squad has to face Oceania champion New Zealand in a two-leg playoff next month, with the winner booking its ticket to Russia. And there sits Argentina, somehow in sixth place.
“Our situation is not very comfortable,” Argentina Coach Jorge Sampaoli said after the Peru draw, “but it depends on us.”
Argentina’s best hope for qualification is a win Tuesday night against already eliminated Ecuador in the thin air of Quito, a place where Argentina hasn’t won in World Cup qualifying since 2001. A draw wouldn’t be ideal, but scenarios exist in which Argentina still gets through. A loss would mean almost certain doom. According to ESPN’s projections, Argentina has just a 47 percent chance of qualifying.
The other games: Uruguay vs. Bolivia, Brazil vs. Chile, Peru vs. Colombia and Paraguay vs. Venezuela.
Argentina last missed the World Cup in 1970. Since then, it has won the tournament twice (1978, 1986) and finished as runner-up twice (1990, 2014). This round of qualification reached its nadir on March 28, when Argentina suffered a 2-0 loss to Bolivia without Messi, who had been suspended four games for abusing an official in the team’s previous qualifier against Chile. Manager Edgardo Bauza was fired a few weeks leader, but things haven’t improved much under Sampaoli: La Albiceleste has scored just one goal in three games, and it was an own-goal by Venezuela. Only Bolivia has scored fewer goals during the South American qualifying campaign.
Failure to qualify would further complicate Messi’s messy relationship with his home country. One of the world’s greatest players, Messi left Argentina for Spain at the age of 13 to train with FC Barcelona, the La Liga titan for which he’s played his entire professional career. Soccer fans in his home country have seemingly held that against him, complaining that he didn’t first rise through the pro ranks in Argentina like Diego Maradona and never won a World Cup, again like Maradona.
Maradona never failed to reach the World Cup, either, and at 30, Messi and Argentina might be fumbling his final chance.
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