Not even the presence of Lionel Messi, in the lineup for just the fourth time in World Cup qualifying, was enough to stop Argentina’s dismal World Cup qualifying run continuing with its most humbling result yet on Thursday.
Argentina had won all three previous matches in which Messi had featured in its campaign to make it to Russia 2018. The problems had come when the Barcelona great was absent. But against its biggest rival last week in Belo Horizonte, Messi could do nothing to prevent a 3-0 drubbing by Brazil that leaves Argentina under huge pressure going into Tuesday’s clash at home to Colombia.
Nobody is feeling the heat more than coach Edgardo Bauza. Taking over from Gerardo Martino following more final heartbreak at this summer’s Copa America Centenario together with mismanagement at the Argentine Football Association, Bauza got off to a winning start with victory over Uruguay. But things have gone dramatically wrong for the Copa Libertadores-winning coach since then, with just two points from four matches.
Back-to-back losses against Paraguay and Brazil leave Argentina in sixth place in South America’s grueling and ultra-competitive World Cup qualifying section ahead of the visit of Colombia to San Juan. Bauza, though, insists there is no thought of Argentina missing out on qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since 1970.
"I never put qualifying for Russia 2018 in doubt," he said at a press conference on Sunday. "The points we've lost hurt, but we still depend on ourselves. The group is strong and that gives us confidence. We've lost points that we didn't think we would and it's normal that criticism has come out. Hopefully, in San Juan, the people can spread the importance that this shirt has. We need that support."
As much as there should be plenty of concern about Argentina’s form, the team’s position in the qualifying shakeup offers plenty of hope that the situation can still be retrieved. Indeed, Argentina is just three points behind Colombia, which sits in third place going into Tuesday's game at the 25,000-capacity Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario. The fourth and final automatic qualifying berth, currently held by Ecuador, is just two points away. A win on Tuesday and the situation could look very different indeed.
It means there is no shortage of pressure on Colombia, too. Led by former Argentina coach, José Pékerman, Colombia has dropped points in its last two matches, both at home, in draws against Uruguay and Chile.
In what is shaping up to be the most competitive South American qualifying campaign yet, eight teams remain in the running for the four automatic spots and one playoff berth to go to Russia. And, having finally ended its 16-year absence from the World Cup in Brazil last time out, Colombia will be all too aware of the perilous nature of ensuring a place at the sport’s biggest event.
Chasing its first win in Argentina since a famous 5-0 victory in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, Los Cafeteros' prospects of a positive result have been dealt a blow by the absence of the team's first-choice center-back pairing. With Oscar Murillo suspended after picking up a yellow card in a goalless draw with Chile and Yerry Mina ruled out through injury, Pékerman has some significant reshuffling to do, even if Inter Milan’s Jeison Murillo is one established alternative.
Prediction: It promises to be another tough outing for Argentina on Thursday, even if it will be helped by Colombia’s defensive absentees. Lacking cohesiveness going forward, Argentina continues to look worryingly vulnerable at the back. Extremely adept on the counter-attack through the likes of James Rodríguez, Colombia could be ripe to exploit Argentina’s defensive deficiencies to get a share of the points.
Predicted Score: Argentina 1-1 Colombia