Argentina have a mountain to climb in Ecuador to secure World Cup place
Lionel Messi and co are on their third manager in this qualifying campaign and head to Quito needing a win to have a hope of playing in Russia next summer
The equation is simple even if the task is not: win in Ecuador and Argentina will, at worst, face a play-off against New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup. Given Chile have to play in Brazil, victory in Quito would probably mean an automatic passage to Russia. But Argentina have only ever won once at altitude in Ecuador and, more significantly, they are playing almost entirely without belief, as though failure had been preordained for them.
As the columnist Pablo Vignone noted in La Nacin, everything that could have gone wrong has gone worse; everything that could have been done badly has been done lousily. It is not unreasonable to think Argentinas position is in part the result of misfortune posts seem to have got bigger and goalkeepers better against them; they would currently be in the playoff spot had Bolivia not fielded an ineligible player against Chile, and while Lionel Messi is not the only recipient of a baffling suspension from Conmebol, he is the only one so important to his team. But none of that should disguise the fact that this is principally the result of massive institutional failure.
Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli have had striking successes over the past decade: none yet, perhaps, in the case of Sampaoli have been able to shake the malaise that is dragging Argentina down. This is the end of a movie Ive been watching for 10 years, said Sergio Batista who won the World Cup with Argentina as a player in 1986 and then endured a miserable Copa Amrica as national manager in 2011 in an interview in Clarn.
I believe in projects and in our football they do not exist. You cannot go through seven coaches in a decade and three in the same qualifiers.
It is not just on the bench that there has been an unhelpful swirl. In the 17 qualifiers so far, Argentina have used 42 players. In the past five games they have used four centre-forwards. None have scored. In fact in those five games Argentinas only goals have been a penalty from Lionel Messi and an own goal from the Venezuela defender Rolf Feltscher.
That inconsistency of selection points to a broader issue. Argentina have been able to choose four different strikers only because of the remarkable talent at their disposal: how many other countries could cycle through the likes of Lucas Pratto, Gonzalo Higuan, Mauro Icardi and Daro Benedetto, while leaving out Sergio Agero?
That breeds impatience because there is always an alternative; players come into the side and are never given time to settle, which in turn adds to the anxiety induced by a 24-year trophy drought and three lost finals in the past four summers.
As Icardi noted last week, that issue is exacerbated by Messi. The unique nature of his talent means others have to adjust to him and for players used to being the dominant figure that is not always easy. The temptation is never to take responsibility but always simply to give the ball to the No10. Breaking a similar dependence on Diego Maradona was a key factor in 1986. We knew we had the ace of spades, who at any moment could change the game, Batista said. But we were clear that, if Diego was covered, [Jorge] Burruchaga appeared and offered relief.
What makes this malaise all the more galling is that the quality is there at coaching level as well, as evidenced by the fact two Argentinian coaches Bauza with Saudi Arabia and Hctor Cper with Egypt have qualified for Russia and they could be joined by Jos Pekerman (Colombia), Juan Antonio Pizzi (Chile) and Ricardo Gareca (Peru), even if Sampaoli does not make it. In the atmosphere there is fear, said Carlos Bilardo, Argentinas World Cup-winning coach in 1986. Argentina are good, have good players, but they need confidence.
That perhaps explains why so much of the preparation for Tuesdays game seems to have been built around relaxing the players. Before travelling up to Quito they are staying at the Hilton Colon in Guayaquil, just as they did under Marcelo Bielsa before that rare victory in 2001. They trained on Sunday at the stadium of Emelec, whom Sampaoli led to second in the Ecuadorian championship in 2010.
There were few crowds, whether to intimidate or to gawp at Messi, to greet them when they arrived on Friday, a huge police operation carefully keeping back only around 60 onlookers.
In part that reflects the fact Ecuadors defeat by Chile last Thursday ended their hopes of qualifying, but it was more to do with this weekend marking the 197th anniversary of Ecuadorian independence. Many locals had taken the opportunity for a weekend in the country, while most of those who remained seemed to be on the banks of the River Guayas, enjoying the fireworks.
Oscar Ruggeri and Burruchaga, World Cup winners in 1986, and Alberto Tarantini, a world champion in 1978, have joined the Argentina party for no better reason than to remind players what is possible. The Argentinian ambassador to Ecuador, Luis Juez, meanwhile, has spent time with the squad and is regarded as some sort of totem after the part he played in Atltico Tucumns remarkable victory over La Nacional in the Copa Libertadores in Quito in February. The collapse of a travel company meant a tortuous journey for the Argentinian side, who ended up having to borrow kit from the national under-20 team but still won 1-0. Without Juezs intervention, they might not even have got to Quito in time.
The message is consistent: adversity can bring out the best in players. Argentina desperately need theirs to respond.