Messi-less Argentina in serious danger of missing out on World Cup

COMMENT

La concha de tu madre, which translates literally - and rather more offensively - into English as "your mother's c***", is a classic, almost poeticArgentine insult. An injudicious use of that iconic phrase (allegedly) got Lionel Messi into hot water after beating Chile earlier in the week, but if video cameras were installed in the average Buenos Aires home after Tuesday's capitulation to Bolivia millions of viewers would now be facing similar sanctions.

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The first of Messi's four-match suspension for insulting a linesman with those (alleged) choice words was expunged in La Paz, as Argentina folded tamely to Bolivia in a 2-0 victory. And if the remaining three games are upheld on appeal, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Albiceleste's World Cup hopes are in serious danger of collapsing.

In all fairness, even Leo's presence would most likely have failed to change the result. Edgardo Bauza's men, with the laudable exception of the battling Angel Correa and Guido Pizarro, were comprehensively beaten by their unheralded neighbours.

Paralysed by the fear of running out of gas in the formidable altitude of the Estadio Hernando Siles, Argentina instead opted not to play at all, handing already eliminated Bolivia the initiative at every turn.

Angel Di Maria was one of the few to fight the rot with his typical lung-busting runs. Unfortunately for the visitors the lack of oxygen seemed to affect the winger's brain more than his legs; he consistently made the wrong decisions, meaning his physical exertions more often than not were literally a waste of breath.

Away from Fideo and Correa, who should be proud of his efforts in filling in for Messi with just a few hours of prior notice, there was little to note in a craven away performance. A new-look defence buckled and strained under its own fragility, with Ramiro Funes Mori so error-prone the Everton man was hauled off at half time in favour of Matias Caruzzo. Ever Banega stood in for Messi as both captain and creative heart of the team, but was almost a spectator as Argentina pumped the ball out wide in the hope of catching out the Verde on the break.

Indeed, the true playmaking maestro was decked in green. Pablo Escobar, 38-years-young, gave another textbook demonstration of how to run the field at 3,600m, alternating bursts of pace with languid control and setting up Juan Arce for Bolivia's opener. The Strongest's Paraguay-born idol gave Bauza's pampered Europe-based stars a lesson in what international football means, and in all truth the result could have been even more emphatic for the hosts.

Still, a defeat in La Paz is an ever-present possibility for any team that ventures into the heights of the Bolivian city. No CONMEBOL would bank on taking three points in such adverse climes, and there is no reason for an Argentina side that made eight changes from the XI that beat Chile to panic over defeat.

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The absence of Messi for the decisive stages of World Cup qualifying, on the other hand, should be giving Bauza plenty of sleepless nights until hostilities resume in August.

With this latest defeat, the Albiceleste have taken just seven of the 24 points on offer when Messi has not been on the pitch. They hold a pathetic winning strike-rate of 12.5 per cent without their captain, compared to 83% when he has been included. Clearly something is deeply broken within the Argentina ranks; this Leo-dependence is far more serious than ever before for the nation, and not even Diego Maradona made such a notable difference.

Bolivia Argentina Bauza Pratto Perez Roncaglia Eliminatorias Sudamericanas Fecha 14 28032017
Ángel di María Argentina 280317

If that tawdry record continues Argentina will not qualify for Russia. Pending appeal, Messi will next miss a daunting Rioplatense derby away to Uruguay, and two home games against Peru and Venezuela. The captain would return only for their last qualifier, another away clash at altitude against Ecuador that will be just as unpredictable as any game in La Paz.

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That pair of home clashes should be comfortable wins for the Albiceleste. But they scraped two 2-2 draws in the corresponding away fixtures, and can take absolutely nothing for granted. Behind them in the CONMEBOL standings Colombia, Ecuador and Chile are still well in the hunt for one of two qualifying places and the play-off spot, leaving precious little margin for error.

It seems bizarre to assert that the World Cup hopes of an entire nation hang on how FIFA's appeals committee interpret Messi's (alleged) reference to the intimate parts of a match official's mother. But reality is consistently stranger than fiction in Argentine football, and there is no doubt that if the four-match ban is confirmed it will be a bitter blow to their chances.

Bauza's Argentina have shown themselves incapable of playing without their talisman on numerous occasions. They now have just three chances to prove that dependence can be overcome, with the alternative being a catastrophe that would shake the world of football.

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