Argentina’s stumbling 2018 World Cup qualification campaign faces another awkward hurdle on Thursday as the misfiring South American giants take on in-form Peru in Buenos Aires.
The 2014 World Cup finalists have lurched from one disappointment to the next since South America’s qualifiers kicked off two years ago, with the two-time champions invariably failing to add up to the sum of their talented parts.
Despite a formidable arsenal of attackers led by Lionel Messi, the Argentinians have scored just 16 goals in 16 games, the second lowest total behind already-eliminated Bolivia.
A lacklustre 1-1 home draw with Venezuela in their last outing on September 5 left Argentina’s hopes of automatic qualification for next year’s finals in Russia hanging by the slenderest of threads.
With just Thursday’s game against Peru and next week’s challenging trip to Ecuador remaining, Argentina are in fifth place in the table, outside the top four automatic qualifying places.
While a fifth-place finish would likely still see them qualify for Russia with what ought to be a straight forward playoff assignment against New Zealand awaiting a crowded table means Argentina can’t take anything for granted.
If South American champions Chile — currently in sixth place, one point adrift of Argentina — win their home match against Ecuador, and fourth-placed Peru win or draw in Buenos Aires, Argentina will head into the final round of games next week outside both the automatic qualifying and playoff places.
In a bid to avoid that scenario, Argentina have sought to obtain every advantage possible against Peru, who have reignited their qualification campaign with consecutive wins over Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The match has been moved to Boca Juniors’ intimidating La Bombonera ground, where steep stands surrounding three sides of the pitch help to create a bearpit-like atmosphere in the 49,000-capacity venue.
Peru last month requested to FIFA that the game be moved to another venue on safety grounds. A 2015 Copa Libertadores match at the ground was suspended when River Plate players were assaulted with a substance similar to tear gas.
Ironically, however, the choice of venue may be a good omen for Peru. The Peruvians secured a famous 2-2 draw at La Bombonera in 1969 which saw them qualify for the 1970 World Cup at the expense of Argentina. It was the last occasion Argentina failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Whether the move to La Bombonera is able to provide the spark Argentina have lacked so far remains to be seen. Under new coach Jorge Sampaoli — their third of the qualification campaign — Argentina drew their last two matches against Uruguay and Venezuela.
Mario Kempes, one of the stars of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup triumph, gave voice to the exasperation of many fans struggling to understand why a squad boasting the likes of Messi, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria has failed to fire.
“When they pull the Argentina shirt on, it’s like they suddenly forget how to play football,” a bemused Kempes said in a recent interview.
Chasing a first World Cup finals appearance since 1982, Peru say they are ready for the challenge.
“We are fully prepared for this, we are a team that is capable of beating anyone,” said their Argentinian coach Ricardo Gareca.
Elsewhere tomorrow, Brazil — who have already qualified and are assured of top spot — travel to La Paz to face Bolivia.
Second placed Uruguay can book their ticket to Russia with an away victory over eliminated Venezuela, while third placed Colombia could also qualify on Thursday if they beat Paraguay and Chile fail to win in Santiago against Ecuador.