MONTEVIDEO, March 22, 2017 (BSS/AFP) – The unthinkable prospect of a World Cup without Argentina or Lionel Messi could move a step closer to becoming reality on Thursday 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 on Thursday 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 next Tuesday — where Argentina have rarely performed well — it means the two-time World Cup-winners 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.