The numbers speak for themselves. Lionel Messi has played six matches in Argentina’s World Cup qualification campaign, notching five wins and one defeat. In the eight games he has missed, however, Argentina have accumulated one win, four draws and three defeats. Messi’s four-match suspension was handed down Tuesday morning, and he still has three more games to miss; after the 2-0 defeat in Bolivia, his absence casts serious doubt on his country’s capacity to qualify.
His ban — four games for swearing at a linesman in the game against Chile last Thursday — seems harsh. He didn’t touch or manhandle the official, but the damage is done, even if Argentina are able to halve the ban upon appeal.
They would hope to win the home games against Venezuela and Peru, the final two games of his suspension, without him. But his absence will certainly be felt in the next fixture: a tough visit to Uruguay at the end of August. It could be that everything will depend on the final round, when he will return to take on Ecuador at the altitude of Quito.
It seems like a harsh thing to say about a side that has reached three finals (the World Cup in 2014, followed by the Copa America and the Copa Centenario) in the past three years, but Argentina have rarely looked like a consolidated, solid team during this span. Frequently, they have been dependent on two players, Messi and his Barcelona teammate, Javier Mascherano. The pair were both missing for the trip high into the Andes to face Bolivia in La Paz, but given the circumstances, it wasn’t the worst performance coach Edgardo Bauza’s team has turned in.
With a hugely successful spell in club football in Ecuador on his résumé, Bauza knows plenty about playing at altitude. It’s true that Argentina’s defence creaked alarmingly in the first few minutes, but once his side settled down, their game plan was clear: Try to keep defence and midfield compact, and use the pace of Angel Corree and Angel Di Maria on the counterattack.
The key moment in the game came when Correa slipped Di Maria through, one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Carlos Lampe made himself big to pull off an important block, and Argentina quickly paid the price. They were caught napping when Pablo Escobar hit a long ball from deep on the right. Juan Carlos Arce made a clever run inside right-back Facundo Roncaglia, and with keeper Sergio Romero caught in no man’s land, his header found the net.
It was a nightmare scenario for Argentina, forced to chase the game in the rarefied air that makes unacclimatised visitors gasp for oxygen. Bauza pushed his team forward. They were never over-run and looked less disjointed than they had in the undeserved win over Chile. But there was no Messi to provide flashes of genius, and there was always the risk that Bolivia would get behind their defence again.
It happened early in the second half. Roncaglia lost control of a ball bouncing behind him. Jorge Flores burst to the byline and crossed for centre-forward Marcelo Martins Moreno, who doubled the lead with an emphatic finish. There was no way back for Argentina from there, and the burning question is whether there is a way back for them in the campaign.
This latest defeat drops them from third in the table to fifth, outside the automatic qualification slots and into the playoff position. It could get even worse too: the side finishing sixth will be watching the World Cup on TV, and Argentina’s next game is that tricky visit to Uruguay, a situation partially mitigated by the fact that Ecuador, their closest rivals, have to travel to Brazil.
There is a great deal for Bauza (or an eventual replacement) to be thinking about over the next few months. Argentina’s defensive unit looks horribly vulnerable, and it’s astonishing that a side with such attacking resources has scored fewer goals than Venezuela, the team currently bottom of the CONMEBOL table.
It would get worse when Argentina were then quickly overtaken by two teams in Tuesday’s subsequent games. In the crunch game of the round, Colombia won 2-0 away to Ecuador. With maximum points from these two rounds, James Rodriguez Co. have been the big victors in this international break, while Ecuador, with two defeats, have been the main losers. With so many players now based abroad, Ecuador are now debating whether home games at the altitude of Quito still provide an advantage.
Like Argentina, they’re also dependent on a relatively small group of top players. The team that set off the campaign with four straight victories had Cristian Noboa running the game from midfield and Jefferson Montero down the left tearing defences apart. But Noboa was suspended vs. Colombia, and Montero has run into injury problems. Enner Valencia is out of form, and with him and Felipe Caicedo up front, the team is top-heavy. When the team isn’t firing, the high defensive line favoured by coach Gustavo Quinteros looks vulnerable. Colombia got behind it to good effect to win the game in the first half, with goals from James Rodriguez and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado.
The Colombians have been a consistent disappointment since the World Cup. Coach Jose Pekerman keeps switching his players around, seemingly unsure of what he wants and perhaps even hindered by the quantity of options open to him. But there are signs that the team might be moving in a promising direction. Certainly, the return of midfielder Abel Aguilar is welcome because in his quiet way he helps knit the side together.
Chile also jumped above Argentina in qualifying after an attractive 3-1 win over Venezuela. They deserved better than their 1-0 defeat away to Argentina last week, when Alexis Sanchez thudded a free kick against the bar. On Tuesday, Sanchez’s early free kick also hit the bar but came down on the right side of the line — from a Chilean point of view. They were three goals up soon after the 20-minute mark, finding their rhythm, with Sanchez irresistible and plenty of movement around him. Veteran centre-forward Esteban Paredes helped himself to two goals.
Clearly building for the 2022 World Cup, Venezuela came out of their shell in an open second half, and Salomon Rondon pulled one back with a towering header from a free kick, highlighting Chile’s traditional weakness in the air. In full flight, though, Chile remain one of the most eye-pleasing teams around; that’s a marked contrast to Bauza’s floundering and forlorn Argentina.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.