Argentina awakened on Friday to the horrifying possibility of a World Cup without the “world’s best player”, Lionel Messi.
The Albiceleste drew 0-0 at home to Peru on Thursday to fall not only out of the four automatic South American qualifying places for next year’s finals in Russia, but also the fifth place that offers a play-off spot against New Zealand.
Sitting sixth, Argentina now almost certainly need to win their final pool game away to Ecuador or miss out entirely on the global footballing showpiece, a prospect that had newspapers in the country retching with horror.
“Will there be a World Cup without the world’s best player?” asked Clarin newspaper on its website.
La Nacion was slightly more upbeat, refusing to rule out a happy ending: “Drama right to the end.”
But one area where all media were agreed was that should Argentina miss out, it won’t be Messi’s fault.
Some even went as far as to suggest the diminutive Barcelona forward, a five-time world player of the year, is practically playing on his own alongside hapless compatriots.
The task has now become desperate as Argentina will head to Quito, 2,800 metres above sea level, on Tuesday in need of three points at a venue in which they have lost twice and drawn one of their last three visits.
It’s not quite a win or bust scenario in an incredibly close qualifying campaign that sees six teams — behind Brazil who have already booked their Russian ticket — still in contention for the remaining three automatic qualification spots and separated by just four points.
Ecuador have already been eliminated and lost their last five matches in a row.
But strangely, even in defeat, Argentina could yet secure the play-off berth, while victory would not guarantee a top-four finish.
Equally, a draw could be enough to finish fourth, or leave them as low as seventh — fans will be tearing their hair out trying to calculate the permutations and combinations.
– ‘Very confident’ –
Coach Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina’s third of the qualification campaign, remains confident — publically at least.
“All that was missing was a goal,” he said after the Peru draw, adding that he was “very confident in the fact that we’ll be at the World Cup”.
He also moved to deflect pressure from Messi, who while winning everything possible in club football and shining brightly for Barcelona, has had a largely disappointing international career — winning the 2008 Olympics is his only major honour.
“We cannot ask more of Lionel Messi. He had chances, created them,” added Sampaoli.
“Messi was very intense, the way we need him.”
The problem, though, is that Argentina simply cannot find the net — just 16 goals in their 17 qualification matches attest to that.
Only Bolivia, already eliminated, have scored fewer while rock-bottom Venezuela, with just one win from their 17 matches, have managed two more goals than Messi’s men.
Minnows Peru are only ahead of Argentina on goals scored, but have netted 10 times more — Brazil have found the net more than twice as many times in their qualification campaign.
Argentina’s last goal, in a 1-1 draw against Venezuela in September, was a Rolf Feltscher own goal, while the last time an Argentinian netted was Messi back in March, although that only from the penalty spot.
The players realise their predicament and in training near Buenos Aires on Friday they were keeping their heads down and looking sombre.
While they’re concentrating on the job at hand, La Nacion had a damning verdict about their performances, likening them to “someone drowning”.
La Nacion, like much of Argentina, have given up faith in Messi and his team-mates, they are now looking for a helping hand from another source: “We’ve got to this final match, begging for a miracle.”