World Cup qualifying started badly for Argentina, and now it’s getting a whole lot worse.
Argentina sits fifth in South American qualifying, the same position it occupied two matches ago. But a closer look at the team’s performance, especially without its banned star Lionel Messi, reveals that the country’s campaign for the 2018 tournament in Russia could be in jeopardy.
Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat in Bolivia, combined with other results from the 14th round of matches, has left the 2014 finalists in a continental playoff position – against a team from Oceania. However, the two goals scored against Edgardo Bauza’s side in La Paz pale in comparison to the setback delivered by FIFA just hours before kickoff, with the four-match ban handed out to Messi.
FIFA took action after Messi insulted a linesman during the team’s 1-0 victory against Chile on Thursday – a game in which FIFA’s five-time world player of the year scored the winning goal.
With only four qualifiers left to play, the stakes are high for the Argentine soccer federation, which has announced it will appeal FIFA's verdict in the hope that Messi might make an early return from suspension.
Meanwhile, Bauza is preparing to tough it out.
"We are only thinking about the future," said the coach, who is under growing pressure to step aside after eight matches in charge, which have produced three losses, three wins and two draws. "We know that it will be a fight and we will keep fighting."
However, it will be a battle without the team's captain and top goal scorer. History and statistics show that Argentina's fortunes are closely tied to Messi's: the team has won only once in eight matches played in qualifying without the Barcelona star.
"It is impossible to replace Messi," said Cesar Luis Menotti, Argentina's World Cup winning coach in 1978. "You can change your tactics, but Messi can't be replaced. It would be like replacing (Diego) Maradona".
Along with Messi, Bauza also had to cope with other absentees for the match in Bolivia. Striker Gonzalo Higuain and midfielder Javier Mascherano were both suspended, while forward Paulo Dybala failed to recover from injury. Striker Sergio Aguero only appeared for the second half.
Bauza also highlighted the problem raised by the timing of FIFA's verdict, saying "it is strange" that Messi's ban was decided so quickly. "We're surprised by how little time we were given to present our position," he said.
With or without Messi, all is not lost for a team that has played at every World Cup after the 1970 tournament in Mexico. Although sixth-place Ecuador is only two points behind in the standings, fourth-place Chile and third-place Uruguay are just one point above. Colombia is also within range, just two points ahead, in second place, behind already-qualified Brazil.
Argentina's next qualifier will be in August against Uruguay, which has lost its last two matches - against Brazil (4-1) and Peru (2-1). Afterward, Bauza's team faces Venezuela and Peru, with Messi currently expected to return for the last match of the qualifying campaign, against Ecuador.
If Argentina needs inspiration for the long months ahead, it could always look to its old rival, Brazil.
The Selecao made a humiliating first-round exit from the Copa America in 2016 and had been struggling in World Cup qualifying with Dunga in charge. However, the arrival of new coach Tite turned around both the performances and results, with Tuesday's 3-0 victory over Paraguay making Brazil the first team to qualify for Russia after an 8-game winning streak.
Bringing back the good times was just what Messi's Barcelona teammate Neymar had wanted from Brazil's game in Sao Paulo.
"I remember, when I was younger, I loved to watch the Brazil games with Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho -- they were my idols," Neymar said. "Now we're doing it again, and I'm very happy for that."
Whether Argentina can also restore its fortunes, without Messi, remains to be seen.