Argentina vs Chile: Uncertain World Cup qualification means there's more than revenge at stake for Lionel Messi's men

Peter Coates
The Independent
Lionel Messi and Argentina face Chile in desperate need of a win: Getty
Lionel Messi and Argentina face Chile in desperate need of a win: Getty

“Not even a final would give us an opportunity for revenge. It would just give us a new opportunity,” were the words of previous coach Gerardo Martino before his Argentina side lost a second consecutive Copa América final to Chile on penalties.

On Thursday evening in Buenos Aires, Argentina face Chile for the first time since that dramatic night in the MetLife Stadium, and while talk of revenge has again been muted, there is indeed a new opportunity, one which outweighs any grudge held over past defeats.

Argentina currently sit fifth in South American World Cup qualification, a position that would require a playoff against an opponent from Oceania to reach Russia 2018, while Chile are only a point ahead in the final automatic qualifying slot. By the time they kick off in the Monumental, Colombia may well have leapfrogged both after an earlier home match against Bolivia, and so unthinkably Lionel Messi’s Albiceleste or Copa América champions Chile face the possibility of watching the World Cup from home.

Lionel Messi and Argentina face Chile again for the first time (Getty)
Lionel Messi and Argentina face Chile again for the first time (Getty)

Other than hitting form in the United States last summer, La Roja have largely struggled under Jorge Sampaoli’s successor Juan Antonio Pizzi and were it not for FIFA awarding them a win over Bolivia for the fielding of an ineligible player and Arturo Vidal at times dragging them over the line, Chile may already be out of the equation.

Vidal will be absent through suspension on Thursday and so Argentina will perhaps never have a better chance to score a victory over their rivals and take qualification back into their own hands.

Neither side will want to face the prospect of going into the final five fixtures outside the top five but for Argentina, on home soil, against an under strength rival with whom there is a score to settle and ahead of a tricky away trip to the altitude of La Paz on Tuesday, nothing less than three points will do.

“Defeating Chile will be fundamental and I don’t care how it is achieved, as long as it is achieved,” Edgardo Bauza declared last week but such expectation brings its own pressures.

It is that energy-sapping clash with Bolivia and away matches against Uruguay and Ecuador yet to come that prompt Argentina’s under-fire coach to place such importance on Thursday evening yet El Patón will know as well as anyone that his side need to make significant improvements.

La Albiceleste have looked disjointed and uninventive, recording only two wins from six played under Bauza, and are among the lowest scorers in qualifying, averaging little better than a goal a game.

If these performances alone were not enough to put Bauza’s leadership under the spotlight then his selection policy has only served to intensify scrutiny.

The reliance on the largely the same group of players that Alejandro Sabella took to Brazil in 2014, like the affable but inactive Ezequiel Lavezzi, at the expense of a new generation led by the controversial Mauro Icardi has sparked fierce debate and if Edgardo Bauza thinks journalists have been ‘breaking his balls’ over this subject previously, it could get a lot worse if results don’t go Argentina’s way this week.

Claudio Bravo celebrates winning the Copa America (Getty)
Claudio Bravo celebrates winning the Copa America (Getty)

It will be a familiar looking Albiceleste that strides out onto the Monumental pitch on Thursday with injury denying supporters the opportunity to see Messi in tandem with his heir apparent Paulo Dybala. The Juventus forward has been ruled out against Chile and Bauza has confirmed that Sergio Agüero will start in the withdrawn role behind Gonzalo Higuaín – a tactic that has exacerbated Argentina’s midfield problems in the past.

The bank of six defensively minded players with four forwards in front, will force Messi into his deeper, multi-purpose role, for which he often finds himself criticized, but which is absolutely vital if Higuaín and Agüero are to receive the ball.

Messi’s last memory of Chile will be that penalty miss in the Copa América Centenario final that prompted his brief international retirement; the Argentina captain has saved La Albiceleste more times than many care to admit but Thursday night provides a shot at redemption.

Bauza has said he envisages Messi lifting the World Cup in Russia next year and triumphantly visiting the Pope. There is much to do between now and June and Argentina certainly don’t have the look of World champions at the moment – Messi’s achievement could be simply dragging La Albicelete on the plane.

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