Argentina will have to begin their latest quest to finally end their wait for international silverware without captain and talisman Lionel Messi. After agonizing final defeats in the finals of the World Cup and Copa America in the past two summers, Argentina will kick off their attempts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia with the visit of Ecuador on Thursday. Messi, though, won’t be present at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires or for Tuesday’s second qualifier in Paraguay next Tuesday. There are doubts, too, that he will be able to return for next month’s clashes with Brazil and Colombia.
The man chasing Gabriel Batistuta’s record haul of 56 goals for Argentina is missing with a knee injury suffered in action for Barcelona last month. Messi’s unavailability comes in the wake of strong criticism for the four-time Ballon d’Or winner after his perceived failure to perform to his usual high standards in either of Argentina’s failed final efforts.
Despite being blessed with an incredible array of talent in recent years, Argentina have not lifted a title since the 1993 Copa America. And their drought at the World Cup stretches back even further, to 1986 in Mexico.
Ending that streak is the ultimate aim of Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who took over following Argentina’s extra-time loss to Germany in Brazil last year. With Messi set to turn 31 during the next World Cup and the man who will stand in for him as captain, Javier Mascherano, already at that age, time is now at a premium to convert a brilliant generation into silverware.
And Martino is already looking to the future. His current squad includes three players aged 22 or under who have yet to make their competitive debut for the Albiceleste. There are first call-ups for striker Paulo Dybala, who Juventus paid Palermo €32 million to secure this past summer, and River Plate defensive midfielder Matias Kranevitter, who has already earned comparisons with Barcelona’s Mascherano. After scoring on his debut in a 7-0 rout of Bolivia in September, Atlético Madrid forward Ángel Correa is unsurprisingly back involved. At the same time, the experienced Napoli striker Gonzalo Higuain is left out.
In Messi’s absence, though, the primary responsibility to fire Argentina to a winning start in qualifying will fall upon the shoulders of Sergio Agüero. The Manchester City striker could hardly be joining up with his country in better form, having scored five goals in a 6-1 pummeling of Newcastle United on Saturday.
As well as Messi, Argentina will be missing Marcos Rojo, Ever Banega and Enzo Perez to injury. And their opponents have fitness problems, too. Ecuador will be without West Ham United striker Enner Valencia, who continues to sit on the sidelines with a knee injury picked up in the summer.
Under coach Gustavo Quinteros, Ecuador suffered disappointment at the Copa America, losing their first two games against Chile and Bolivia to crash out at the group stage. They have, though, made it through South America’s ultra-competitive qualifying format in three of the last four editions. Yet Ecuador have not beaten their opening opponents this time around in their last six attempts and have never come out on top in Argentina.
Prediction: Clearly the absence of Messi is a blow, but Argentina have more than enough quality going forward to cope against Ecuador. The sprinkling of new talent should also add an extra spark to Martino’s side. Lacking their chief goal-threat up front, Ecuador’s defense also struggles to keep opponents quiet.
Predicted score: Argentina 2-0 Ecuador