Argentina suddenly in big trouble in World Cup qualifying

By The Rex Factor

Very few people would argue that the South American qualification for the World Cup is the most grueling test for the 10 soccer nations involved in the world. Each of the countries plays the other at home and away in an 18-game round-robin that stretches over the course of three calendar years.

It’s paramount to hold serve at home, which is why Colombia plays most of its home matches in the middle of the day in steamy Barranquila. It’s why Bolivia and Ecuador play in their high-altitude fortresses of La Paz and Quito, respectively.

With four automatic bids and the fifth-place team playing a usually-overmatched foe in a home-and-home to see who also qualifies, the CONMEBOL region basically gets in half of its members to each World Cup, and deservedly so. Four of the top nine countries in the FIFA World Rankings at the start of this event were CONMEBOL members, including top-ranked Argentina.

Through thick and thin, over 18 games, the Brazil’s and Argentina’s of the region always find their way to the World Cup. The Argentines last missed out on qualification in 1970, winning it twice and playing in the final twice more since then.

The road to Russia in 2018 has not been paved smoothly, however. Star forward Lionel Messi has missed about half of the qualifiers to injury, and it’s been a grueling calendar year that saw Argentina play six extra games this summer in the Copa America Centenario, a one-off event (for now) held in the United States. Messi briefly retired from international duty after a goalless final in which Chile again beat the Argentines (just as in Santiago in 2015) 4-2 in the penalty shootout.

Since beating Uruguay in September, Argentina is now winless in its last four qualifiers. This includes disappointing 2-2 draws at Venezuela and Peru, a shocking 1-0 home loss to Paraguay and a 3-0 dismantling at Brazil Thursday.

Colombia invades San Juan on Tuesday, and only three points would ease fears of “La Albiceleste” faithful as the qualifying enters the top of the stretch. There will be six fixtures left when play resumes in late March of next year and things are suddenly bunching up quite tightly in the middle.

Bolivia was forced to forfeit points earned last month when using an ineligible player in a 2-0 win over Peru and a 0-0 draw with Chile. Those two teams benefited from FIFA’s decision to award them 3-0 wins (and the goal differences that came with them), which for now, really hurts Argentina.

Brazil sits at the top of the table with 24 points and Uruguay has 23. Those two are comfortably through for the time being. But just four points separates the next six countries heading into Matchday 12 on Tuesday.

Colombia has 18 in advance of its trip to Argentina, and will be lustily after a result of some sort. It’s not impossible, as Ecuador pipped them at home in addition to the Paraguay loss and a draw with Brazil. Ecuador and Chile sit level at 17 points, with Ecuador a goal ahead in differential to claim fourth. Argentina are at 16 in sixth, Paraguay at 15 and Peru at 14 after dumping the Paraguayans with a four-goal second half outburst in Asuncion Thursday. Action on all five matches Tuesday will be available at later this weekend.

These are the last matches until March and will go a long way into seeing how the local federations prepare in the four-plus months before international matches resume for the South American sides.