Argentina will again be without Lionel Messi as it goes in search of vital World Cup qualifying points in Peru on Thursday. Although Messi returned from his short-lived international retirement under new coach Edgardo Bauza last month but he has since suffered a groin problem while with Barcelona and will miss both the clash with Peru in Lima and a home encounter with Paraguay five days later.
They are two key matches for Argentina, which lies in third place as the tight and competitive South American qualifying campaign reaches the halfway point. Only five points separate seventh-placed Chile and Uruguay for the top spot, with just four teams qualifying for Russia 2018 automatically and a fifth going into a playoff.
The matches are made all the more important for Argentina given its upcoming run of fixtures. Next month will see an away trip to take on fierce rivals Brazil as well as the visit of Colombia, before, in March, Argentina will host the team that came out on top in the final of both the 2015 Copa America and this summer’s Copa America Centenario, Chile.
While Argentina is blessed with enviable depth in attacking areas, the influence of Messi has been evident thus far in World Cup qualifying when Messi has been absent for five of eight matches. With the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, Argentina has won all three of its matches. Without him, La Albiceleste has won one, lost one and drawn three.
Still, there are plenty of options this time around to step into Messi’s place. Among the candidates are Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Atletico Mineiro’s Lucas Pratto, all of whom are in good form with their clubs. Ángel Correa is another option, and the Atlético Madrid youngster is up for the challenge of replacing his country’s all-time leading scorer.
"We all know there is only one Messi, but if I am asked to replace him I will do the best to help the team," Correa said ahead of the match with Peru. “Without a doubt all the players Argentina have must respond at 100 percent whether Messi is there or not. We must all adapt to any position.”
Also back competing for a spot is Gonzalo Higuaín. The Juventus striker was left out of Bauza’s first squad last month amid much talk of a summer weight gain following another crucial missed chance in a major final.
Thursday’s match in Lima is also hugely important for the host. Down in ninth place with just seven points, Peru faces an uphill task to get back into contention for a place at a first World Cup since 1982. But a 2-1 win against previously first-placed Ecuador last time out has given Ricardo Gareca’s side hope. Peru will now hope to capitalize on playing at home, where it has lost just two of its last 10 World Cup qualifiers.
Prediction: On paper, Argentina certainly has the firepower to cope with Messi’s absence. But Peru, led by veteran striker Paolo Guerrero, is also more than capable of causing problems for an Argentina defense that looked worryingly open in a 2-2 draw against Venezuela last month.
Predicted Score: Peru 1-1 Argentina
Goalkeepers:Pedro Gallese (Veracruz, Mexico), Carlos Cáceda (Universitario), José Carvallo (Universitario de Deportes)
Defenders: Christian Ramos (Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, Argentina), Yoshimar Yotún (Malmo, Sweden), Aldo Corzo (Deportivo Municipal), Renzo Revoredo (Sporting Cristal), Miguel Trauco (Universitario), Nilson Loyola (Melgar), Alberto Rodríguez (Melgar), Luis Abram (Sporting Cristal), Miguel Araujo (Alianza Lima).
Midfielders: Cristian Benavente (Charleroi, Belgium), Christian Cueva (Sao Paulo, Brazil), Édison Flores (Aalborg, Denmark), Renato Tapia (Feyenoord, Netherlands), Carlos Lobatón (Sporting Cristal), Pedro Aquino (Sporting Cristal), Joel Sánchez (San Martín), Sergio Peña (San Martín).
Forwards: Luiz Da Silva (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), Irven Ávila (Liga de Quito, Ecuador), Paolo Guerrero (Flamengo, Brazil) Raúl Ruidíaz (Monarcas Morelia, Mexico).
Goalkeepers: Nahuel Guzmán (Tigres, Mexico), Sergio Romero (Manchester United, England)
Defenders: Facundo Roncaglia (Celta Vigo, Spain), Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal, Spain), Ramiro Funes Mori (Everton, England), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United, England), Martín Demichelis (Espanyol, Spain), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla, Spain), Nicolás Otamendi (Manchester City, England), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City, England)
Midfielders: Matías Kranevitter (Sevilla, Spain), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona, Spain), Ever Banega (Inter, Italy), Erik Lamela (Tottenham, England), Nicolás Gaitán (Atlético Madrid, Spain), Ángel Di María (Paris Saint-Germain, France)
Forwards: Ángel Correa (Atlético Madrid, Spain), Lucas Pratto (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City, England), Paulo Dybala (Juventus. Italy), Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus, Italy)
Venue:Estadio Nacional, Lima
Date: Thursday, Oct. 6
Time: 10.15 p.m. EDT