AR­GENTINA NOT THERE YET

Messi and team­mates still have much to do af­ter poor start

New Straits Times - - Sport -

BUENOS AIRES

WIN­NING three pre­cious points with a 10 vic­tory over Chile was only half the bat­tle for Ar­gen­tine this month to get their World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign back on track.

Ar­gentina, win­ning with a penalty by Lionel Messi who had missed last time he faced Clau­dio Bravo from the spot in last year’s Copa Amer­ica fi­nal shootout, must change al­most half their team to face Bo­livia in La Paz on Tues­day.

They wel­come back cen­tre­back Ramiro Funes Mori but have lost four play­ers to sus­pen­sion in­clud­ing mid­field gen­eral Javier Mascherano.

Right-back Gabriel Mer­cado, their best player against Chile, has a leg mus­cle in­jury.

Coach Edgardo Bauza told re­porters he was call­ing up River Plate striker Lu­cas Alario as cover for the sus­pended Gon­zalo Higuain and ru­mours abound of a re­turn for Boca Juniors play­maker Fer­nando Gago, who was sorely missed against Chile.

Ar­gentina have mostly strug­gled un­der Bauza since Ger­ardo Martino left af­ter steer­ing the team to two Copa Amer­ica fi­nals in tour­na­ments in which they were un­beaten in open play.

Bauza is a more de­fen­sive coach and Messi cuts a de­jected fig­ure for much of the time on the pitch, grit­ting his teeth and work­ing like a jour­ney­man rather than the ge­nius he is to en­sure Ar­gentina reach the Rus­sia fi­nals in 2018.

“We played against a great team who ended up putting five men up front (in search of an equaliser),” Bauza told re­porters, jus­ti­fy­ing his side’s loss of con­trol in mid­field.

“The team had to put in a lot of sac­ri­fice to be or­gan­ised,” he added while the play­ers con­tin­ued with the de­ci­sion they took in Novem­ber not to talk to the me­dia fol­low­ing a story pub­lished about striker Eze­quiel Lavezzi.

Ar­gentina must now pre­pare to avoid de­feat in the thin air of La Paz nearly 4,000 me­tres above sea level which could suck them back out of the four au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing berths in the 10-na­tion South Amer­i­can group.

“Ev­ery­one knows how dif­fi­cult the al­ti­tude is,” said Bauza.

Af­ter 13 of the 18 match­days, Ar­gentina are third with 22 points, eight be­hind run­away lead­ers Brazil, one be­low Uruguay and one ahead of Colom­bia with Ecuador and Chile a point fur­ther back.

The fifth-placed team at the end of the cam­paign in Oc­to­ber will go into a play­off with a side from Ocea­nia for an­other berth in the fi­nals. Reuters

AFP PIC

The United States’ Clint Dempsey (left) and Hon­duras’ Henry Figueroa tus­sle for the ball at Avaya Sta­dium in Cal­i­for­nia on Fri­day.

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