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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Day of reckoning for Messi's Argentina as South American World Cup qualifiers too tight to call

Six teams from continent competing for three direct berths and one play-off place

The spotlight will be on Lionel Messi, centre, and whether he can guide Argentina to the 2018 World Cup finals. Alejandro Pagni / AFP
The spotlight will be on Lionel Messi, centre, and whether he can guide Argentina to the 2018 World Cup finals. Alejandro Pagni / AFP

It is a long drop from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to sea level. Just shy of 3,000 metres, so the air is thin, and shortness of breath becomes a handicap after sustained exertions for those not used to the altitude.

For the talented set of sportsmen who will have made the climb on Tuesday, the view looking downwards is also very daunting.

Argentina’s footballers, led by Lionel Messi, play in Quito on Tuesday night knowing that they must climb at least one run in the treacherous, slippery ladder that is the South American qualifying table for next summer’s World Cup finals if the unimaginable is to be avoided.

Right now, after 17 matches, Argentina are only sixth best of the nine nations who have endured a competition half as long as a typical domestic league campaign to filter through four, perhaps five teams to go on to Russia for the sport’s most prestigious tournament.

For Argentina, it has come to down to this: 90 anxious minutes in the Andean attic of their continent to clamber into the top four guaranteed a ticket, or grasp a fifth spot that would send them into next month’s play-off against New Zealand.

Argentina should of course have more than enough of the best mountaineering gear for the victory that would move them up, at least, one position in a table where six nations still at risk of elimination are divided by just four points.

They have Messi, and such choice in attack that manager Jorge Sampaoli has elected to do without Gonzalo Higuain and, lately, Paulo Dybala. Yet the cables and winches that ought to make Argentina – twice world champions and World Cup finalists in 2014 – their continent’s pace setters look ever more worn and precarious.

Impotence stalks them. They have taken three points from the last possible 12. The only goal they have scored in the three matches since Sampaoli became the third manager of their mess within a year was an opposition own goal.

“The altitude is an advantage for us Ecuadorians,” home team manager Jorge Celico mischievously remarked. He insisted Ecuador, whose chances of reaching Russia disappeared last week, would honour their responsibilities to fans and the other five South American hopefuls by striving for a win.

They have recent history with them.

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Ecuador have beaten a wheezing Argentina 2-0 in Quito in the last two meetings there. They beat a wretched Argentina by the same scoreline in Buenos Aires earlier in this marathon qualifying group.

A win, at least, would let Argentina grip at the safety rope of the play-off against New Zealand, given the tight mathematics and because the pair of teams immediately above them play one another on Tuesday night.

At stake in Peru – fifth – versus Colombia – fourth – are the World Cup participations of superstars such as the Colombians Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez. The permutations are several, but both teams know that a win will keep them alive, in Colombia’s case guaranteeing progress to Russia, in Peru’s at least the play-off.

Colombia's James Rodriguez, left, and Radamel Falcao are fourth in the table. Jose Torres / AFP
Colombia's James Rodriguez, left, and Radamel Falcao are fourth in the table. Jose Torres / AFP

South American champions Chile, who are galvanised by Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, face their own jeopardy. Victory in Sao Paulo against a relaxed but swaggering Brazil is their only absolute guarantee against elimination.

Group leaders Brazil booked their Russia berth back in June and have 38 points – 10 more than second-placed Uruguay. Chile, like Colombia, are a point ahead of Argentina and Peru, who both have 25 points.

If other results go against them, a draw or worse in Sao Paulo would plunge third-placed Chile out of contention.

Best placed are Uruguay on a night when all five fixtures across the continent – kicking off simultaneously – carry somebody’s hopes or dreads.

Only an extravagant goal-fest of an Argentina win, coupled with a defeat for Uruguay at home to eliminated Bolivia and victories for Chile and Colombia, could sink Uruguay to the play-off berth. Even in that unlikely scenario, they would fancy Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez to take care of New Zealand.

Long shots? Paraguay, who are a point below Argentina and hoping against hope that a win against Venezuela, bottom of the pile, in Asuncion might be celebrated at the final whistle by news of a Chile defeat and Argentina’s failure to gain three points in elevated Quito.

Add to that scenario a point each for Peru and Colombia, and Argentina would be making their way back down from the Andes crushed, exhausted and ashamed.