Struggling Argentina in thin air in Ecuador and on thin ice

With Argentina and Lionel Messi on the brink of missing the World Cup, they are not receiving any sympathy from Brazil.

Lionel Messi and his Argentina team-mates need to bounce back after their draw with Peru. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Messi and his Argentina team-mates need to bounce back after their draw with Peru. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Five-time champions Brazil
qualified six months ago for the finals in Russia, and have been fascinated watching their arch-rivals struggle to join them.

“Everybody knows the skills of Messi and the importance of Argentina,” said Manchester City’s Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus. “If they are where they are, it’s because of what they have done.

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“Of course, you talk about Messi, one of the best players football has ever had. But we have to think only about ourselves.”

South America wraps up regional qualifying in the early hours of tomorrow morning. Only Brazil are in. Three other teams will gain automatic berths, and one more qualifies for a play-off next month against New Zealand.

Most eyes are on Argentina’s match in Ecuador, played at 9,350 feet in the thin air of Quito. In other matches, which all start at the same time, its Brazil v Chile, Peru v Colombia, Paraguay v Venezuela, and Uruguay v Bolivia.

Argentina need a victory to get at least a play-off spot. Any other result puts them in jeopardy of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1970.

A World Cup without Argentina and Messi would hurt the TV networks, Russian ticket sales, and governing body Fifa, which needs an exciting tournament to distract from any problems off the pitch.

“It’s natural that a World Cup without Brazil, Argentina, or Germany would lose a little of its charm,” Brazil defender Miranda said. “But our goal is to qualify to the World Cup and our opponents should deal with their own situations.”

Argentina will guarantee their place in next year’s finals if they beat already-eliminated Ecuador and other results go their way, and their manager, Jorge Sampaoli, insists his team must keep the faith.

A draw in Quito might even be enough for Messi and Co to claim at least a play-off berth – providing fifth-placed Peru lose at home to fourth-placed Colombia – but Sampaoli, pictured inset, is determined for his side to keep their destiny in their own hands.

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The former Sevilla boss, who will be without injured midfielder Fernando Gago, said after seeing his side held to a goalless draw at home by Peru on Friday: “It’s an uncomfortable situation, but qualification still 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.”

He added: “This is football, sometimes it gives and sometimes it takes away. Sometimes you deserve something but do not win.

“The team is angry but thinking that if they win in Ecuador, they will qualify. There is a conviction that strikes me very much. We will continue searching.”

Brazil are unbeaten in their 11 World Cup qualifiers under coach Adenor Leonardo (Tite) Bacchi. Nine were victories. If Chile can end Brazil’s unbeaten streak, the reigning Copa America champions will advance to their third straight World Cup.

“We think we have the weapons to do it,” Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo said.

Bravo ruled out any collusion to hurt Argentina’s chances. “We don’t think of an agreement not to attack,” Bravo said. “Brazil is a team that presses and plays well. They are at home, which favours them. But we improved in the last match. We’ll play our game and try to make history.”

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Brazil are likely to make 
several changes. The team may not have much to play for, but many players do.

Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson should replace Alisson, and defender Marquinhos comes in for the injured Thiago Silva. Tite also hinted he will give another chance to left-back Alex Sandro because Marcelo was injured.

Chile will be without key midfielder Arturo Vidal, who is banned for an accumulation of yellow cards. Manager Juan Antonio Pizzi has called up Esteban Pavez, who plays for Brazil’s Atletico Paranaense.

“We qualified for the World Cup three matches ago and this has not changed the seriousness and the behaviour of our team,” Jesus added. “And it won’t change now.”