Argentina’s failure to pick up three points from the visit of Peru to La Bombonera on Thursday has left qualification to next summer’s World Cup on the brink. What stands between La Albiceleste and a place in Russia is a visit to one of international football’s harshest environments, a place that hasn’t proved a happy hunting ground over the years.
CONMEBOL’s gruelling qualification process comes to a dramatic close on Tuesday evening and while five nations still vie for the remaining two automatic spots and the fifth-placed playoff position, Argentina begin the day on the outside in sixth.
Victory in Quito will guarantee Argentina at least fifth, a draw, or in the most remarkable circumstances even defeat could still be enough, but in both those cases, results elsewhere would have to save Jorge Sampaoli’s side.
For the fact that it does remain in Argentina’s hands, no matter how much they may not deserve that, Sampaoli is sure of success.
“It depends on us. I’m very confident that if we play with the conviction that we did [against Peru] then we are going to be in the World Cup.”
With a similar looking eleven to the one that was held by Peru in La Bombonera, Sampaoli must be praying that his side are more clinical in front of goal. Enzo Pérez comes in for Éver Banega, presumably to provide protection and a little more of an active box-to-box presence, and Eduardo Salvio starts on the right in the only two changes from Thursday.
Lionel Messi will once again shoulder the attacking burden, the dependence on the world’s best player has never been more evident than during this campaign, but there can be no repeat of the missed chances that cost Argentina dearly against Peru. In the past five games, four different number nines have been used and none have scored – Darío Benedetto gets another shot in Quito after two key misses in La Bombonera and has the weight of the nation on him.
Argentina probable XI: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Javier Mascherano, Nicolás Otamendi; Eduardo Salvio, Lucas Biglia, Enzo Pérez, Marcos Acuña; Lionel Messi, Ángel Di María; Darío Benedetto
There will however be a major difference to last Thursday and it goes well beyond simply the lack of La Bombonera’s vociferous home support. At 2,850 metres above sea level, Quito is one of the most difficult places for away sides to visit and starved of oxygen, Argentina will be tested to their physical limits.
Ecuador’s Argentinian caretaker boss Jorge Celico is fully aware of this: “I selected my squad thinking about this game. We have players who respond well to the conditions.”
That may well be the case but this is not the same Ecuador that qualified for the 2014 World Cup dropping only two points at home or who raced into an early lead during this campaign. La Tricolor have lost their last five matches and are already eliminated, which promoted manager Gustavo Quinteros to be relieved of his duties and Celico to be given temporary control.
With a much changed squad, Antonio Valencia suspended and Enner Valencia likely ruled out through injury, Ecuador are without question not at their best. However, on home soil and eager to go out in style, they may take it to Argentina and that could prove beneficial to Sampaoli’s side, who have struggled to breakdown defensive structures.
At least that is the hope because there is no getting away from the fact that Argentina have had difficulty in Ecuador historically.
La Albiceleste have won only two of six World Cup qualifiers held in Ecuador and just one since the current format began in 1996. The 6-3 victory in 1960 has been repeated once and that was when Marcelo Bielsa’s side won 2-0 in 2001.
Goals from Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo were enough that day but there is little comparison to the situation that the two sides arrived to Quito in. While Sampaoli has been given limited time to implement his ideas and Argentina are now in a must-win position; Bielsa’s side had lost just once in the 13 qualifiers prior and were on course to top the table with a record points tally.
Last time in Quito, Argentina picked up a valuable point thanks to a Sergio Agüero penalty but Sampaoli knows that his side will likely need to go one better. No one wants to be praying for results elsewhere in the continent and only three points will guarantee that.
1978 World Cup winner Mario Kempes said this week, “A World Cup without Argentina and Messi would be a catastrophe.” In only a few hours we see if Sampaoli, Messi and Argentina can avoid that fate.