MONTEVIDEO • Argentina's stumbling 2018 World Cup qualification campaign faces another awkward hurdle today when the misfiring South American football giants take on in-form Peru in Buenos Aires.
The 2014 World Cup finalists have lurched from one disappointment to the next since South America's qualifiers kicked off two years ago.
Despite a formidable arsenal of attackers led by Lionel Messi, the Argentinians have scored just 16 goals in 16 games, the second lowest total behind already-eliminated Bolivia.
A lacklustre 1-1 home draw with Venezuela in their last outing on Sept 5 left Argentina's hopes of automatic qualification for next year's Finals in Russia hanging by the slenderest of threads.
With just today's game against Peru and next week's challenging trip to Ecuador remaining, Argentina are fifth in the table, outside the top four automatic qualifying places. While a fifth place would likely still see them qualify for Russia - with what ought to be a straightforward play-off assignment against New Zealand - a crowded table means Argentina cannot take anything for granted.
If South American champions Chile - currently sixth, one point behind Argentina - win their home match against Ecuador and fourth-placed Peru win or draw in Buenos Aires, Argentina will head into the final round of games next week outside both the automatic qualifying and play-off places.
In a bid to avoid that scenario, Argentina have sought to obtain every advantage possible against Peru, who have reignited their qualification campaign with consecutive wins over Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador. The match has been moved to Boca Juniors' intimidating 49,000-capacity La Bombonera ground, where steep stands on three sides of the pitch help to create a bear pit-like atmosphere.
ARGENTINA QUALIFYING FORM
PERU QUALIFYING FORM
Peru last month asked Fifa to move the game to another venue on safety grounds. A 2015 Copa Libertadores match at the ground was suspended when River Plate players were assaulted with a substance similar to tear gas.
Ironically, the choice of venue may be a good omen for Peru, who secured a famous 2-2 draw at La Bombonera in 1969. That saw them qualify for the 1970 World Cup at the expense of Argentina.
It was the last occasion Argentina failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Whether the move to La Bombonera is able to provide the spark Argentina have lacked so far remains to be seen. Under new coach Jorge Sampaoli - their third of the qualification campaign - they drew their last two matches with Uruguay and Venezuela.
Sampaoli, who took over in June, has the credentials, having led Chile to the Copa America title in 2015. But his selections have also been inconsistent and Argentina have used 48 different players since last year's Copa America.
Sampaoli this week recalled Fernando Gago after a two-year absence and called up two players who have never started a competitive international - midfielder Pablo Perez and striker Dario Benedetto.
Mario Kempes, one of the stars of Argentina's 1978 World Cup win, gave voice to the exasperation of many fans struggling to understand why a squad boasting the likes of Messi, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Angel di Maria has failed to fire.
"When they pull the Argentina shirt on, it's like they suddenly forget how to play football," a bemused Kempes said.
Chasing a first World Cup appearance since 1982, Peru say they are ready for the challenge.
"We are fully prepared for this, we are a team that is capable of beating anyone," said their Argentinian coach Ricardo Gareca.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
ARGENTINA V PERU
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