Argentina in fifth-place, the bear minimum they need to at least negotiate a play-off if they are to reach Russia 2018.
World Cup hopes on a knife-edge for Lionel Messi's Argentina as they face Uruguay in Montevideo
Argentina’s World Cup prospects fluctuate by the moment. And in the down-time of a long summer, events off the field have been draining and lifting hopes and fuelling fears as much as what has happened on the pitch.
Argentines are not always sanguine about their national team. The nail-biting situation that the two-time world champions find themselves in has apparently put everybody on edge.
Not least Lionel Messi, who during his country’s narrow win over Chile in March, spoke angrily – and apparently abusively - to an assistant referee, whose report of the incident then led to a four-match ban for the Argentina captain. On appeal, that punishment fell to a single game, the 2-0 loss to Bolivia that left Argentina in fifth place in the South American qualifying group, which is shy of automatic progress to Russia next year.
More suspense, appeal and counter-appeal, would follow. Chile, in fourth spot, hold their one-point advantage over Argentina thanks to a 3-0 victory that was awarded to them after Bolivia had been found to have fielded an ineligible player in a 0-0 draw between those countries. A Bolivian appeal against that decision raised Argentina’s hopes; it was turned down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Tuesday.
So Argentina are in Montevideo on Thursday (Friday morning UAE) for their derby against Uruguay still stuck in the awkward limbo of fifth place in the group, with four fixtures left. If they are still there next month, when the qualifiers are completed, they would have to endure a play-off against the best finishers in the Oceania section. If they lose and Ecuador spring a surprise by winning in Brazil - who are already through - Argentina will slip back into a sixth place which offers no route at all to the finals.
Add to all this, a new manager, Jorge Sampaoli, preparing his first competitive match in charge after his own long summer saga escaping his contract at Sevilla so that he could become the country’s seventh different manager in less than a decade. Word is that Sampaoli is preparing some bold moves in what he describes as “a match to shape the World Cup history of this country".
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There may be no starting place for Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano, owner of 136 caps, as Sampaoli ponders how to combat the threat of Edinson Cavani in the Uruguay attack, and the possible added menace of Luis Suarez, whose recuperation from an injury he picked up earlier this month has been smoother than anticipated and led to Suarez’s late call-up for his country.
There may also be a first start for Argentina for the Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi, whose international career has long been stymied by the fierce competition for places up front. Icardi played eight minutes for his country back in 2013, but has watched from distance since as Juventus’s Gonzalo Higuain – surprisingly omitted from the current squad by Sampaoli – and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, among others, were the preferred partners for Messi.
Sampaoli is said to be leaning towards a front trio who are in prime early season form: Messi, for Barcelona, Paulo Dybala, for Juventus, and Inter’s Icardi scored seven goals between them at the weekend.
Meanwhile Uruguay’s Cavani has five in four Ligue 1 matches so far this term for Paris Saint-Germain and leads the rankings in South American qualifying for Russia 2018 with nine goals from his 11 matches.
Uruguay’s form is a concern, though. They have lost their last three competitive games, although their strong start to qualifying left them with a cushion. They sit third, joined on 23 points with Chile. The bottleneck makes the tie a tense one for Uruguay, too. Lose on Thursday and they would leapfrogged by Messi and company.
Even without World Cup tickets at stake, Uruguay versus Argentina is highly charged. “You go to Montevideo with a knife between your teeth,” the former Argentina captain Diego Simeone used to say.
The first World Cup final, in 1930, was played out between these two nations, a derby of the River Plate won by Uruguay, the hosts.
“This is not just any old game,” said Uruguay’s craggy centre-back, Diego Godin, chief patroller of the area where Messi, Dybala and Icardi will seek their opportunities.
“It’s a football classic, and we all know what we are playing for.”