It was thoroughly unconvincing and not really deserved, but Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday was a result of massive importance. Come the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign it could mark the difference between a place in Russia and watching on TV.
Further, it took place in a context where nothing seemed to be going right for the Argentines, starting with events further north in South America.
Bolivia chose not to take some of their best players to Colombia, opting instead to save them for the visit of Argentina on Tuesday. Not only will this make the Albiecelestes’ next match more difficult, but understrength opponents were also likely to make things easier for one of Argentina’s direct qualification rivals, especially as weather conditions meant the Bolivians had an awful journey that included a five-hour airport delay.
In the end, Colombia made hard work of winning 1-0 vs. the weakened Bolivian side. The hosts gave a nervy, laboured performance in the sweltering afternoon heat of Barranquilla and only broke the deadlock after being awarded a controversial late penalty. Even then James Rodriguez had his initial kick saved by Carlos Lampe, before turning in the rebound.
The result meant that, by the time Argentina kicked off against Chile, they were sixth place in the CONMEBOL table, outside the qualification slots. And that context illustrates the value of victory which, like that of Colombia, came courtesy of o controversial penalty: Defeat or even a draw would have kept Argentina in sixth, whereas the three points they gained carried them up to third.
The respite might be temporary, though. Tuesday’s visit to Bolivia takes Edgardo Bauza’s side to the dreaded extreme altitude of La Paz — 3,600 metres above sea level — where unacclimatised players have been known to gasp desperately for oxygen in the rarefied air. In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Argentina lost this fixture by the humiliating margin of 6-1.
There is, though, an important difference between then and now. Seven years ago, the coach at the start of his short spell in charge was Diego Maradona. In his own playing days, games at altitude were not such a challenge for one important reason: The Bolivia team was not good enough to take much advantage.
But things have moved on in the past two decades and Maradona, whose team had just completed an impressive victory at home to Venezuela, believed the correct mental approach was all that was required. As such, he filled the dressing room with motivational slogans, which proved useless as soon as his team took the field. Argentina had made no specific plans for the conditions and paid the price.
Argentina drew 1-1 in Bolivia ahead of the 2014 World Cup and there will be nothing left to chance this time, for Bauza has extensive experience of playing at altitude. The high point of his coaching career to date was guiding LDU of Quito, who made full use of playing home games 2,800 metres above sea level, to Copa Libertadores glory nine years ago.
Argentina’s manager will be aware that his team should run as little as possible and that they should seek to take the sting out of the game by retaining possession. The problem is that this is an area in which they are lacking; Bauza recognised his team suffered in the last few minutes against Chile because they were unable to keep the ball. The problem lies in the way the side is constructed.
“The midfield is the heart of a side,” wrote former international Diego Latorre in La Nacion after the game. “It should not be empty. But that is what keeps happening with Bauza’s team. Operating with three strikers requires that the ball is played well out of defence, with a circuit that in every action offers three passing options.
“None of this is apparent in the current Argentina side. There is no capacity for association, no one playing the pass and getting in position to receive the return ball, and as a consequence the strikers are isolated and not participating.”
The lineup will be different in Bolivia — more compact in midfield — not least because Gonzalo Higuain is suspended. But there are other problems, including a crisis of centre-backs; the defensive unit has been creaking badly and time and again has been dependent on Javier Mascherano filling holes. But he is also suspended. How will Argentina fare without him?
The good news is that, even in defeat, Argentina can sink no lower than fifth. Chile would overtake them with a win at home to Venezuela but, with Ecuador and Colombia meeting each other in Quito, both cannot climb above Bauza’s side.
However, unless they can pull off a surprise in La Paz, it looks like being a tense run-in toward Russia for Lionel Messi and Co.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.