Argentina-based football journalist on a side sitting outside the qualification spots after defeat to Brazil
Could Argentina really miss out on the 2018 World Cup? It is a concept that almost defies belief, particularly since in Lionel Messi the Albiceleste boast the best player on the planet.
Playing football’s most prestigious international tournament without Brazil, Italy, Germany and the 1978 and 1986 winners is almost unthinkable – but if the side don’t lift their game after a terrible run of form, that is exactly what could happen.
Thursday’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Brazil marked four CONMEBOL qualifiers without a win for Edgardo Bauza’s men. A loss to the five-time world champions, who have never lost a game at home in qualifying and who have been revitalised since new coach Tite took over, is almost excusable. But coming as it did off the back of draws against Peru and Venezuela and a home reverse to Paraguay, it is clear that something is going wrong in the heart of the Argentina team.
The official line, of course, is that there is no need to panic. Coach Bauza insisted to reporters after full time that qualification “still lies in Argentina’s hands”, lying a point behind the current occupants of the play-off spot, Chile, with seven games left to play. Messi echoed the sentiment, although he was rather more candid in admitting that the nation “have to change this s*** situation”. But how has a team that for the last three years has fought to three major cup finals found itself in this predicament?
Brazil's Neymar, right, greets Argentina's Lionel Messi prior to a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Thursday Nov. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Messi’s absences have of course been a factor. The Barcelona idol missed the first four qualifiers in 2015, and was also away through injury for that dreadful run of three winless games against more than beatable opponents. Overall with the No. 10 on the field Argentina have won three of the four matches they have played so far; without him, however, that ratio drops to just one in seven. The team appears unable to function when their talisman is not there to provide the magic, an indictment on the lack of creative talent in a side which still boasts some of the best forwards in the world.
All in all it has been a tough introduction to the job for Bauza, who took over from Gerardo Martino following defeat in the 2016 Copa America final. The ex-San Lorenzo, LDU Quito and Rosario Central coach has a proven track record, but has struggled to bring over the ideas that made him such an effective club trainer to the international arena. He has also persisted with players that are not up to scratch anymore for the Albiceleste, and his unwillingness to rock the boat and bring in new faces to revitalise problem areas such as the defence – almost a no man’s land on Thursday as Neymar and Philippe Coutinho ran riot – is also holding Argentina back.
Daniel recently spoke to our own Team 33 about the brief period when Messi quit the national team:
The loss in Belo Horizonte now makes victory over Colombia, just two points ahead in fourth place, on Tuesday all the more important. The Cafetero cannot be taken lightly, although Argentina should have enough to take victory in San Juan if the squad shows the mettle to get over this latest setback.
But in the medium to long-term, changes must be made in the Argentina ranks to shake up a stagnant, complacent group of players. Luckily for the South Americans their production line of talent shows no sign of slowing down, and from Paulo Dybala (injured for this call-up) to Mauro Icardi, Geronimo Rulli and Matias Kranevitter there is a new generation of stars itching to make the breakthrough into the international arena. After the Colombia clash the qualifying campaign also heads into recess, giving those in charge a full four months to form a rejuvenated team before hostilities resume in March.
It is up to Bauza and those in charge at Argentina to make the big calls now and return the nation to their proper standing in world football, or else risk a potential disaster in failing to make the cut for Russia 2018.