Lionel Messi’s controversial four-match international suspension, confirmed just hours before Argentina’s World Cup qualifier against Bolivia, could hardly have come at a worse time for La Albiceleste.
Edgardo Bauza’s side are far from assured of qualifying for next year’s tournament in Russia following several mediocre displays late last year.
Argentina have won six, drawn four and lost three in their current CONMEBOL qualifying campaign, leaving them third in the overall standings with 22 points, with the top four qualifying automatically. Colombia are one point behind them in fourth, while Ecaudor and Chile lie another point further back.
The race is tight with just five rounds of fixtures left to play, and after his retrospective punishment for insulting assistant referee Dewson Silva during Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, Messi will miss four of Argentina’s remaining matches.
Crucially, while Argentina have won five out of the six qualifiers Messi has played, they have emerged victorious in just one of the seven he has missed.
The Barcelona forward was absent for draws against Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela and Peru while also missing defeats to Ecuador and Paraguay.
While Argentina have won five out of the six qualifiers Messi has played, they have emerged victorious in just one of the seven he has missed.
Messi will now have to sit out of meetings with Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, with the first of those fixtures coming just five hours after his suspension was confirmed.
Worse still, Tuesday’s trip to La Paz may be Argentina’s most testing of the entire campaign.
Bolivia currently sit second-bottom of the CONMEBOL qualifying table, but their stadium, the Estadio Hernando Siles, is notoriously difficult to play at due to its altitude of 3,637m above sea level.
Though actually sitting higher than Fifa’s altitude limit of 3,000m, the Estadio Hernando Siles was granted special exemption by world football’s governing body in 2007.
Bolivia have enjoyed a relatively strong home record in previous World Cup qualifying campaigns, though Mauricio Soria’s side have struggled there this time out, winning just once and drawing three.
Paulo Dybala, the Juventus forward, is expected to replace Messi in Bauza’s starting line-up and the absence of Argentina’s star player in their next qualifiers could lead to an international return for Maurco Icardi.
Bauza told Icardi earlier this month to ‘be calm’ and wait for his opportunity with La Albiceleste.
“I've told him: 'Be calm, if something happens to [Gonzalo] Higuain or [Lucas] Pratto, I'll call you,'" Bauza said on 17 March. “He's happy, calm, no problems. He said to me: 'I'm calm.' And I repeated that he could be called up at any time, and that no one in the national team has a problem with him.