Argentina face Peru in Thursday qualifier with both teams under huge amount of pressure to win
Lionel Messi form crucial for Argentina and 2018 World Cup organisers
Argentina could use a saviour like Ricardo Gareca right now.
The 59-year-old manager remains a household name for folk of his generation and for one reason. Without Gareca, the nation might well have one less World Cup title to boast about.
Gareca was better than a journeyman striker in his playing days. He represented both the Buenos Aires behemoths, Boca Juniors and River Plate, and partnered Diego Maradona in attack for club and country.
On the most famous night of his career, he was summoned from the substitutes bench to join Maradona for a desperate half hour. Argentina, at home, were trailing Peru 2-1, and, as it stood, by a point in the qualifying table for the 1986 World Cup finals.
It was the last match of the group phase.
History celebrates what happened 11 months later, a second World Cup triumph in the space of eight years for Argentina, Maradona their inspiration. But it was Gareca, poking the ball over the goal-line with nine minutes left, to earn the decisive point at the tail-end of qualifying, who altered the pre-history of that tournament.
Maradona thanks him still. Gracias, Gareca.
That footnote to history is being vividly remembered ahead of Thursday night’s collision in Buenos Aires between a Peru who occupy the fourth and last automatic qualifying position in the South American qualifying group, and the Argentina who sit beneath them, equal on points.
Tense? You bet.
Jeopardy, and the alarming sensation that Argentina as a collective are far less than the sum of their brilliant parts, may be no novelty in World Cup qualifying. but this time, with two group games left in qualifying for Russia 2018, there are added spectres.
One is Gareca. He is now managing Peru, and making a fine job of it.
The country, without an appearance at a World Cup finals since 1982, finished third under him at the 2015 Copa America, and have arrived in Buenos Aires on the back of five successive wins.
Gareca, who won 20 caps for Argentina, knows the atmosphere will be intimidating, perhaps more so because, unusually, the venue for this high-stakes contest is Boca’s Bombonera stadium, a little smaller and tighter than the Monumental - site of last month’s troubling 1-1 draw with Venezuela.
That, Gareca insists, will not throw his Peruvians off course. Nor might anything unforeseen: It has been noted that the Peruvian squad have even brought their own drinking water with them, just to be on the safe side.
Gareca also arranged a training session before they departed Lima on a deliberately waterlogged pitch, in case the playing surface on Thursday night is squelchy. And accompanying the Peru delegation is another spectre: ‘Cachito’ Ramirez, aged 70. He scored two goals for Peru in Buenos Aires in a 1969 World Cup qualifier that deprived Argentina of a place at the 1970s tournament, the only World Cup they have missed.
He has come along as a lucky charm.
Gareca diplomatically says he hopes “Peru and Argentina both qualify". While that possibility is real, it is unlikely one of them would not have to go through the compulsory play-off round – a two-legged tie against the Oceania qualifier, probably New Zealand – next month to make it to Russia 2018.
Defeat on Thursday night carries the threat of slipping to sixth place, where Chile lurk, just one point in arrears. Argentina must then complete their fixtures with a trip to Ecuador, who are still in the frame with 20 points, next week.
Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli concedes "the situation is difficult for us". It has been a sterile campaign.
In two competitive matches since Sampaoli took charge, the only goal in Argentina’s favour has been a Venezuelan own goal.
Through 16 qualifiers, Argentina have scored fewer goals than every nation bar Bolivia, who are already eliminated. This from the country of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, standard-setting goalscorers in elite club football.
There is no Aguero on Thursday night because of an unfortunate rib injury, sustained in a car accident last week. There is no Higuain, of the record-breaking transfer fee to Juventus barely over a year ago. He has been dropped.
Dybala may be left out because his brilliant recent form for Juventus has not been mirrored in the blue-and-white stripes of his country. Inter Milan’s Icardi is a fitness doubt.
So once again a nation looks to little Leo.
“Messi took charge of our last two games and the fact we couldn’t take advantage was worrying,” Sampaoli says.
“We won’t man-mark Messi,” Gareca insists. “Argentina are not about just one player.”
Nor is the World Cup, although a summer in Russia without Messi is a spectre dreaded by the tournament’s organisers.