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Argentina face World Cup qualifying struggle without majestic Messi

Argentina's hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia received a body blow on Tuesday when Lionel Messi was hit with a four-match ban for abusing a linesman.

Head coach Edgardo Bauza had his plans for the away qualifier in Bolivia thrown into further difficulty six hours before kick-off, with his line-up already ravaged by injury and suspension.

The wider ramifications could be more damaging, given Messi will miss next season's qualifiers against Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru.

The Barcelona superstar will return for the final match of the CONMEBOL section against Ecuador but Argentina's record in two previous injury absences for their talisman during the current campaign make for grim reading.

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Bauza's men currently occupy the third of four automatic qualification spots, thanks largely to winning five of the six matches Messi has started. The 28-year-old's only loss came against leaders Brazil.

Messi scored his fourth goal of qualification with an early penalty to seal victory over Chile, although his outburst at the end of the 1-0 win in Buenos Aires leaves his team-mates contemplating their fallow form without the five-time Ballon d'Or winner.

In seven Messi-less games, Argentina have one win – a 1-0 victory in Colombia when Lucas Biglia was on target – four draws and two defeats.

La Albiceleste must hope an enviable array of attacking talent including Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala are able to step up in Messi's absence.

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