UN­THINK­ABLE SCE­NARIO

Ar­gentina may miss World Cup if they slip up against Chile

New Straits Times - - Sport -

THE un­think­able prospect of a World Cup with­out Ar­gentina or Lionel Messi could move a step closer to be­com­ing re­al­ity to­day as the South Amer­i­can gi­ants pre­pare to face arch-ri­vals Chile in a cru­cial bat­tle on the road to Rus­sia 2018.

Ar­gentina, who last failed to qual­ify for the World Cup in 1970, saw their progress to­wards next year’s fi­nals go awry in 2016 when back-to-back draws with Venezuela and Peru were fol­lowed by de­feats against Paraguay and Brazil.

Al­though they bounced back to beat Colom­bia 3-0 in a home qual­i­fier last Novem­ber, they re­main out­side the au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing places in fifth place, with 19 points from 12 games.

A de­feat against fourth-placed Chile to­day in Buenos Aires would leave Ar­gentina fur­ther adrift of the au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing spots.

And if Colom­bia beat lowly Bo­livia in their home game, as ex­pected, Ar­gentina could even fin­ish the day fur­ther down the peck­ing order, out­side of the fifth-place play­off berth they cur­rently oc­cupy.

With a trip to face Bo­livia in the thin air of La Paz await­ing them on Tues­day — where Ar­gentina have rarely per­formed well — it means the two-time World Cup­win­ners can ill af­ford to slip up against the Chileans.

Ar­gentina de­feated Chile in San­ti­ago ear­lier in the qual­i­fiers, win­ning 2-1 in March last year.

How­ever since then Chile in­flicted an­other soul-de­stroy­ing de­feat on the Ar­gen­tines in a ma­jor fi­nal, win­ning the Copa Amer­ica Cen­te­nario fi­nal on penal­ties last June, a year af­ter an iden­ti­cal out­come in the 2015 tour­na­ment.

The Copa Amer­ica Cen­te­nario de­feat prompted the de­par­ture of Ger­ardo “Tata” Martino as Ar­gentina coach in July, trig­ger­ing the slump in form which has left their World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign in the bal­ance.

To­day’s other show­piece game in South Amer­ica sees Brazil take on Uruguay in Montevideo.

Brazil have trans­formed their qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign with six straight vic­to­ries since new coach Tite took over last year fol­low­ing the Copa Amer­ica Cen­te­nario de­ba­cle, where the five­time World Cup win­ners were elim­i­nated in the group stage.

The Brazil­ians are now mo­tor­ing to­wards qual­i­fi­ca­tion for Rus­sia, four points clear at the top of the stand­ings from sec­ond­placed Uruguay.

A seventh straight vic­tory to­day will all but guar­an­tee Brazil’s place at the fi­nals in Rus­sia.

Tite’s big­gest headache will be at­tempt­ing to find an ad­e­quate back-up to Manch­ester City star­let Gabriel Je­sus, who is in­jured. Je­sus proved to be the cat­a­lyst for Brazil’s resur­gence last year, scor­ing five goals in six games.

Though there is no ob­vi­ous like-for-like re­place­ment, Tite still has plenty of at­tack­ing op­tions with a strike force led by Ney­mar.

Liver­pool duo Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho could also pro­vide at­tack­ing thrust.

Uruguay coach Os­car Tabarez ad­mit­ted he would have his hands full deal­ing with Ney­mar.

Asked how he planned to shackle the Brazil star, Tabarez replied: “If I had a for­mula I cer­tainly wouldn’t share it.”

Uruguay also have a prob­lem in at­tack with Barcelona star Luis Suarez sus­pended.

That is likely to mean that Edin­son Ca­vani will shoul­der the goalscor­ing threat for Uruguay with sup­port from Diego Rolan.

Else­where to­day, Ecuador will at­tempt to main­tain their place in the au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing spots as they travel to Asun­cion to face Paraguay.

Bot­tom team Venezuela host Peru. AFP

Brazil for­ward Ney­mar

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