South American World Cup qualifiers continue to be the most nerve-wrecking and closely fought contest in the world: every team can defeat anyone, and as the end nears seven out of ten teams can qualify, with one more outsider. Only Brazil, who started weakly but has risen over the last year, seem to be certain of going to Russia after their recent away victory in Montevideo against Uruguay, who remain in second spot.
But Argentina tonight lost away 2-0 to Bolivia, and will struggle to keep their closest competitors from Chile, Colombia and Ecuador away. Even Paraguay could beat them to the World Cup spot, and Argentina could risk a play-off match, or worse, not qualify!
Except for fans of Argentina (including myself) the worst consequence of Argentina not qualifying would likely be a World Cup without Lionel Messi. Let us face it; besides Messi, and perhaps DiMaria (and not counting an ageing and 'wasted-in-Barcelona' Mascherano), Argentina only has mediocre players who are not up to the task without Messi. Tonight's defeat to Bolivia was a case in point: after having defeated the South American champions of Chile last week (with Messi scoring the winning goal) Messi stupidly insulted the referee and got himself a four-match suspension. Argentina without Messi was a mediocre side unable to break the home side in the altitude of La Paz. With only four matches left, Messi will be available for only one. And they are not easy matches: Uruguay away, and Venezuela and Peru at home. Argentina's best hope seems to be that the other teams take points from one another and that they do not lose too many points in these coming three matches.
It is not looking good for a World Cup with Argentina and Messi!