OCTOBER 10 — Are we poised to suffer a World Cup without the world’s best player?
That sad scenario is a distinct possibility as Lionel Messi and Argentina head into this week’s final round of qualifying fixtures in sixth place in the South American standings, knowing that anything but victory against Ecuador could see them eliminated.
That’s the bad news for the Albiceleste. The good news is that a victory would almost certainly see them progress to next summer’s festivities in Russia, barring the unlikely scenario of Chile winning away at runaway group leaders Brazil.
In a qualifying process which has been in large part dull and predictable, the gruelling and mammoth race for progress in South America is a thrilling exception.
With 10 teams in the frame, a total of 18 rounds are contested before the top four go through automatically and the fifth head into a very winnable two-legged knockout tie against New Zealand.
Right now, with just one set of fixtures to play, only Brazil have definitely qualified thanks to a superb run of form which has seen them win 11 of their 17 games and establish a 10-point lead over second-placed Uruguay, who have assured at least a top-five spot and will almost certainly finish in the top four to take another automatic berth.
Behind them, it’s incredibly close: Chile (26 points), Colombia (26), Peru (25), Argentina (25) and Paraguay (24) are all still in contention, and the final set of fixtures on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning promises to deliver truly dramatic thrills and spills until the final whistle.
The meeting in Lima between Peru and Colombia, which could result in both, one or neither team advancing, will be particularly captivating, but there’s no doubt about the biggest story on the continent: the strong possibility that Messi and Argentina ― who were beaten finalists against Germany in 2014 ― will miss out.
A complex scenario basically boils down to this: if Argentina win in Ecuador this week, they will be through automatically unless Chile win in Brazil, in which case they will probably be in the playoffs; if they draw, they will be relying on favourable results in the other games; and if they lose, they will be out.
Current form does not bode at all well, with Argentina failing to win any of their last four games and not winning a qualifier away from home since March 2016, when they triumphed 2-1 in Chile.
It gets worse. They have not scored a single goal in their last three away qualifiers, losing 3-0 in Brazil, 2-0 in Bolivia and drawing 0-0 against Uruguay, and that feeble form has contributed to a dismal overall record of just 16 goals from 17 games.
Argentina’s failings, especially in the attacking department, are a complete mystery when you consider they are blessed with the presence not only of Messi, but also ample lashings of top-class attacking talent such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paolo Dybala and Angel Di Maria.
At first, the inability of that brilliant group of players to score goals was inevitably blamed upon the manager, Tata Martino, who was widely portrayed by fans and the media alike as a bungling fool before he finally ended his misery by resigning last summer.
Martino’s successor Edgardo Bauza did no better, only lasting eight games before being fired, but Argentina’s fortunes were then supposed to take a sharp turn for the better with the appointment of Jorge Sampaoli: one of the hottest managerial talents in the world to accompany the best player in the world… what could possibly go wrong?
Sadly, Sampaoli’s arrival hasn’t made things better, and the former Sevilla and Chile boss is still waiting for his first competitive win after seeing his team score only one goal in three games.
And so it all comes down to Tuesday night’s game in Ecuador, which has always been extremely hostile terrain for visiting teams for one simple reason: altitude. The Estadio Olimpico in Quito is located 2,782 metres above sea level, making it difficult for players unaccustomed to the conditions to run, never mind compete at maximum intensity for 90 minutes.
Argentina have not won in Ecuador since 2001, losing twice and drawing twice in their most recent visits, and this week’s hosts have only lost seven of their last 39 home qualifiers.
It’s all looking pretty ugly for Argentina, but they can at least take comfort from the knowledge that Ecuador have nothing to play for, already suffering elimination after a wretched run of five consecutive losses.
But if they fail to make it, Messi ― who would be in his mid-30s by the time of the next World Cup – would almost certainly forever be condemned to be judged by the tedious argument that he’s not really a great player because he’s never won the World Cup.
In that respect, Messi is always compared unfavourably to his compatriot Diego Maradona, who inspired Argentina to triumph in the 1986 Finals in Mexico; unless Messi equals that achievement, according to many people, he will never be as good as Maradona.
Messi, I have no doubt whatsoever in asserting, is by far the greatest footballer I have ever seen, and deserves to be unreservedly and totally admired rather than forced to endure knowing shakes of the head and muttered comments: “Yes, but…”
There is no but. Messi is the best, full stop. If it takes Argentina to win the World Cup for everyone to recognise that, I hope they do. And if he scores a match-winning hat-trick in Ecuador this week, even better…
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.