Argentina v Chile: No margin for error for Messi and co
Having seemingly proved himself as shrewd a negotiator as he is a football tactician, Argentina head coach Edgardo Bauza had a dream farewell in mind for Lionel Messi.
Devastated and angry, the Barcelona superstar hastily announced his retirement from international football after ballooning his spot-kick over the bar in Argentina's penalty shootout defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario final – mirroring a bitter loss against the host nation at the 2015 Copa.
This followed heartache in the final of the 2014 World Cup and three agonising runners-up finishes in as many years contributed to an unbearably punishing grind for Argentina's talisman.
But Bauza, freshly minted as Gerardo Martino's successor in August, held talks with Messi in Barcelona to ensure his self-imposed exile would be brief and envisaged a romantic goodbye for the 29-year-old at Russia 2018.
"He deserves to take his retirement in another way," Bauza said. "He deserves to end his international career as a champion."
— Selección Argentina (@Argentina) March 22, 2017
The sight of arguably the greatest player to have ever laced boots hoisting the shimmering gold trophy next year holds obvious appeal. However, as is often the case with fairytale endings, it sits removed from present reality.
Argentina welcome recent tormentors Chile to Buenos Aires on Thursday for a World Cup qualifier, with their hopes of reaching Russia dangerously in the balance.
Bauza's men are currently fifth in the standings, shy of automatic qualification but holding the intercontinental play-off berth that would secure a showdown against a side from Oceania.
Chile are a point better off in fourth – indeed, taking leaders Brazil and second-place Uruguay out of the equation, two points separate Ecuador in third and Colombia in sixth. A devilishly tight, tense dogfight will unfold over the remaining six matches.
Such are the rich depths of talent hailing from South America, celebrated performers such as Chile's Alexis Sanchez or Colombia's James Rodriguez are in danger of spending the next World Cup as spectators. If they both make it, the brightest star of them all is likely to be mulling failure in front of his television set.
Messi is one of seven men in Bauza's squad, along with Sergio Romero, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi, to have retained the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. Their number would stand at eight but for a thigh injury to Manchester City full-back Pablo Zabaleta.
— Selección Argentina (@Argentina) March 23, 2017
Keeping this generation together and performing at the highest level was supposed to spark an era of unparalleled success for La Albiceleste, not one of chastening near-misses. Russia represents their last chance to emulate Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona and the respective heroes of 1978 and 1986.
Bauza's chief on-field problem is a castle built on sand. Behind an all-star forward line - Gonzalo Higuain will spearhead a four-pronged attack featuring Messi, Aguero and Di Maria against Chile - lies an accident prone defence featuring Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo at centre-back this time around.
The presence of so many 2008 alumni speaks both of their talent and a subsequently faltering production line, while the national team's recent trials and tribulations have been played out against a backdrop of mayhem at the Argentinian Football Association.
FIFA has stepped in to run the AFA's affairs, the power vacuum following the death of long-serving president Julio Grondona in 2014 still unfilled. Elections scheduled for later this month have been postponed, while the second half of the domestic season suffered a false start when the players' union Futbolistas Argentinos Agremiados called a strike over unpaid wages.
The onus is on Messi - who labelled the AFA a "disaster" shortly before his brief retirement and reportedly stepped in to pay unpaid team security staff before last November's qualifying defeat to Brazil - to haul an Argentina side more reliant on him than ever to victory over Chile.
Argentina have actual mountains to climb in two of their three remaining away fixtures, tackling Bolivia next week and Ecuador in October at punishing altitude. Buenos Aires must be a scene of sweet respite and revenge to guard against Messi and Bauza's dream fading from view.
De no creer el recibimiento que tuvimos en Buenos Aires.
— Selección Chilena (@LaRoja) March 23, 2017
ARGENTINA AWFUL WITHOUT MESSI
Throughout his career, Messi has not always enjoyed the adoration in his homeland afforded to him in Catalonia, but this situation is changing as his importance to the national team is laid bare.
- During the current qualification campaign, Argentina's 80 per cent win ratio with Messi in the team (W4 L1) plummets to an abject 14.3 per cent (W1 D4 L2) in his absence.
- When Messi was sidelined through injury, Argentina's average goals-per-game return dropped from 1.6 to 0.9.
- The defence also feels the strain – conceding four when lining up alongside the Barcelona great and eight when not.
- Messi's opener in the 3-0 win over Colombia last time out means he has three in five starts during qualification, averaging one every 150 minutes. He has also created 13 chances for team-mates and boasts passing accuracy of 80 per cent.