When you can no longer change the players on the pitch, try and change the fans. Argentina brought a must-win World Cup qualifying clash against Peru to Boca Juniors’ infamous Bombonera on Thursday, in an attempt to up the ante at the end of a spluttering campaign for Russia 2018.
The more intimate, vociferous atmosphere in the stadium, it was argued, would push the Albiceleste on to a win that was desperately needed in order to avoid a potentially catastrophic failure to make the finals. The fans were there, in full voice throughout – but the situation on the pitch was depressingly familiar as Lionel Messi and his charges limped to another draw that could have catastrophic consequences.
Jorge Sampaoli’s quest to find a working Argentina team continued again in just his third competitive game on the bench. Local Boca hero Dario Benedetto started up front, while Messi dropped back to a more traditional No. 10 role and Alejandro Gomez was rewarded for his fine form in Serie A with a start.
It was all to no avail, however. Argentina once more dominated possession throughout the 90 minutes, but could not find away through a Peru side also playing for their lives with the tantalising prize of the World Cup looming just over the horizon. On the few occasions they did, the Albiceleste once more came up against a goalkeeper apparently channelling the spirit of an entire nation in order to keep the hosts at bay.
Pedro Gallese came up with top-drawer saves to deny Benedetto, Lucas Biglia and Gomez, with Messi additionally striking the post. Three of those attempts came within a frenetic one-minute spell right at the start of the second half, Argentina’s best spell of a game which was on the whole far below what one would expect of a team so packed with talent.
It was all bark but no bite from the home team. The rotten fortune that afflicted the nation on Thursday can be summed up in a five-minute cameo from Fernando Gago, who entered in the second half to a standing ovation from his adoring Bombonera but was soon going back down the tunnel after turning awkwardly.
“It’s my cruciates,” the midfielder could be heard telling Messi as he waited to be helped off, and his exit so soon after promising to lift Argentina with his incisive passing was another body blow on a night that bordered on the bizarre.
Sampaoli may point to that setback, as well as an admittedly ample number of chances squandered, in his bid to explain just what went wrong at the Bombonera. It is true that in losing Gago the coach was robbed of a substitution that surely would have seen Mauro Icardi replace Benedetto, whose lack of polish was palpable across the 90 minutes. But the ex-Sevilla man also must shoulder his part of the blame for playing Benedetto in the first place when in the Inter man and Gonzalo Higuain, not even picked for the squad, he had two international-class finishers clicking their heels from the outside.
Messi, too, will rue a performance that ranked far from his best. As a provider he will feel more than aggrieved that fine passes into Benedetto and Gomez were not converted, but La Pulga was equally guilty in turning onto the post a rebound that nine times out of 10 one would expect him to bury. Perhaps the anxiety that has gripped an entire nation in this tortuous qualifying campaign has finally caught up with the maestro: as the minutes went on he turned skittish, losing the clockwork precision that is his trademark and failing to beat a Peru defence that gnawed at his ankles like a pack of rabid pitbull terriers.
Now as well as football aficionados, Argentina fans must turn to amateur mathematics. Thursday’s 0-0 draw leaves the Albiceleste in sixth place, behind Peru on goals scored and out of the World Cup going into the last game. That decider is in Quito against Ecuador, a daunting prospect at altitude at any time but more so with so much at stake.
A draw could still see them take a play-off spot, provided Paraguay drop points and the Inca come unstuck at home against Colombia or Chile lose heavily against a Brazil that, if Thursday’s evidence in Bolivia is anything to go by, are coasting serenely through the rest of this campaign. But realistically only a win will do, and that will not happen unless they break a goal drought that is inexplicable however you wish to look at it.
No less than 456 minutes have now passed since an Argentina player scored a competitive goal from open play. There is no excuse for a run like that, when a team boasts the finest player on the planet and a more than accomplished supporting cast. Thursday showed plenty of bark from the Bombonera terraces, but if Messi and Co. cannot add bite and killer instinct in Quito they can forget about Russia.