High stakes as Argentina look to consolidate position

By Rex Gowar

By Rex Gowar

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Winning three precious points with a 1-0 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 centre back 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.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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