Argentina still clinging to 2018 World Cup hopes after shocking Peru draw
Round by round the tension ratchets up and the unthinkable starts to become increasingly feasible. With one game of the qualification campaign to go, Argentina's place in the 2018 World Cup is very much in question. A 0-0 draw at home to Peru -- making it four games without a win -- has left Argentina fans clutching the calculator in one hand and the number of the cardiologist in the other.
A flurry of late goals in the night's other games have ended up making Argentina's task both simpler and more complicated. They kick off the final match in sixth place -- the top four go through automatically, with the side finishing fifth playing a home and away playoff against New Zealand. While Colombia were beating Paraguay, Argentina were facing a situation where their fate was no longer in their hands -- even a win in the final round might not have been enough. On the other hand, it was feasible enough to imagine a draw lifting Argentina up two places to fourth and inching closer to a place in Russia.
But with Paraguay astonishingly finding two late goals to beat Colombia, the scenario has changed. Now a win will definitely be good enough, but a draw may not be. Argentina, then, have it all to play for as they prepare for the final round -- away to Ecuador at Quito, more than 2,800 metres above sea level and in conditions they traditionally despise. But at least, after 17 rounds of an inept campaign, featuring three coaches and just 16 goals, they remain masters of their own fate. It may be more than they deserve.
Changing the venue of the match against Peru always smacked of desperation. Instead of their traditional Buenos Aires base and the home stadium of River Plate, they moved across town to the ground of Boca Juniors. River is bigger, but the fans are some way from the pitch. Boca's stadium is pure passion, a wall of noise. The idea was that this would lift the home side and intimidate the Peruvians, but there was always the danger of the move backfiring, with an already nervous home side made even more jumpy by the pressure of the occasion.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli made it clear from his starting lineup that in last month's first competitive games in charge he had tried to move too far, too fast. Gone was the back three he had brought in -- the lack of defensive pace makes it vulnerable. And also abandoned was the attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi. With next to no time to train Messi and Dybala had not gelled, and Icardi was replaced by Dario Benedetto, playing on his home ground. The base formation was a more orthodox 4-2-3-1. Sampaoli, though, persisted with the idea of playing "wrong footed" wide men -- left footed Angel Di Maria on the right, and right footed Alejandro Gomez on the left. Their tendency to cut in had the effect of closing down the team's own space, playing into the hands of cautious opponents.
Updated CONMEBOL standings and SPI projections. This is nuts. pic.twitter.com/roIlMD3l5U— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) October 6, 2017
Peru made it clear from the start that they were not going to take any risks. A draw suited them as their final game is at home. So in place of suspended playmaker Christian Cueva, coach Ricardo Gareca selected Sergio Pena, a cultured midfielder, but one who had been handed defensive instructions. His task was to pick up Argentina midfielder Ever Banega and stop him combining with Messi. It meant that Peru's centre-forward Paolo Guerrero was left isolated, but it also aimed to stop at the source the supply to Messi, and prevent him from combining with his teammates.
He spent much of the game searching for a partner or trying to do too much. And, protecting the space in front of his centre-backs, Peru's holding midfielder Reinaldo Tapia did a sound job, closing down Messi before he could do much damage. There were flashes -- a shot from a cleverly taken corner that was deflected wide; a break with Benedetto that led to Di Maria shooting over; a well-flighted cross that Benedetto could not keep down; a shot off the post after another combination with the centre-forward; a pass that put Gomez clear on goal, only for keeper Pedro Gallese to block his shot; a low cross that substitute Emiliano Rigoni could not quite turn inside the near post; a burst of acceleration and neat pass to Benedetto, who was unable to beat the keeper one-on-one.
On another day it would have been enough. On this occasion it was not. And, as is so often the case with Argentina in this campaign, other than Messi there was little threat from anywhere else. The longer the game wore on, the quieter the home fans became and the greater the threat that Peru might even steal the three points on the counter-attack.
But it finished goalless, and the Peruvian players celebrated with their noisy band of supporters at the final whistle. They remain one place ahead of Argentina. True, it is by the narrowest of margins -- number of goals scored. But it is an important difference. It means that Peru are fourth. Their last game is at home against the shell-shocked Colombians, who were just a few minutes away from nearly locking up a place in Russia until they conceded those two late goals to Paraguay. Argentina, meanwhile, are left with a mountain to climb, but thankful they still have a shot.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.