Saturday, March 24, 2018 10:01:00 PM
AFP, Quito :
Lionel Messi and Argentina will be fighting for their World Cup lives on Tuesday as the South American heavyweights take on Ecuador aiming to avoid a humiliating failure to qualify for next year's finals in Russia.
The eyes of the football world will turn to Quito's Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa to see if the once unthinkable prospect of a World Cup without Messi is to become a stunning reality.
The two-time World Cup winners head into the final round of South American qualifiers in sixth place, outside the top four positions which grant automatic qualification and trailing fifth-placed Peru, who occupy the playoff spot, on goal difference.
Yet with only two points separating third-placed Chile (26 points) with seventh-placed Paraguay (24), any number of permutations are possible.
Argentina can simplify the equation for their nervous fans, however, if they manage to take all three points in Quito on Tuesday.
A victory would guarantee they finish no worse than fifth place, putting them into a two-legged play-off against New Zealand they would be expected to win.
But winning in the thin air of Quito, which is 2,850 metres (9,350 feet) above sea level, may be easier said than done.
The Argentinians have an abysmal record in away games against Ecuador, with their last victory in Quito coming in 2001.
Since then in World Cup qualifying games, they have been beaten twice, in 2005 and 2009, before scraping a 1-1 draw in 2013.
Barcelona star Messi also has a record of struggling in games at altitude, vomiting on the pitch during a draw in the rarefied air of Bolivia four years ago.
The 30-year-old five-time Ballon D'Or winner also heads into the game knowing that next year's finals in Russia may be his final chance to emulate Diego Maradona by winning a World Cup.
"A World Cup without Argentina and without Messi would be a catastrophe," Argentina's 1978 World Cup hero Mario Kempes said this week.
"The only ones who would be happy if Messi doesn't go to the World Cup would be Maradona fans."
The 2014 World Cup finalists face their moment of truth after a series of uninspiring performances that has left the footballing world scratching its head at how a squad bristling with so much attacking talent has found scoring so difficult.
Despite being able to call upon Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria throughout the campaign, Argentina have only scored 16 times in 17 games.
Last Thursday's 0-0 stalemate with Peru in Buenos Aires was Argentina's third consecutive draw. The Albiceleste have now scored only once in their past four qualifying games.
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