MONTEVIDEO • Lionel Messi and Argentina will seek to maintain the pressure on Chile with a victory over Venezuela today, as South America's 2018 World Cup qualifying race enters the home stretch.
A faltering campaign has left the two-time champions fifth in the standings with three games remaining, just outside the top four spots which guarantee automatic entry to next year's Finals in Russia.
It would still take a dramatic sequence of results for the unthinkable - a World Cup without Argentina - to become reality.
Even if Jorge Sampaoli's side fail to lock up automatic qualification, and finish fifth in the 10-team table, they would still be favourites to qualify via a two-legged play-off against a team from Oceania, most likely to be New Zealand.
Yet the gloom that has enveloped the Argentinian squad throughout the qualifiers means that little is being taken for granted ahead of today's game in Buenos Aires.
An uninspiring 0-0 draw with Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday left Argentina level on 23 points with fourth-placed Chile, who lead on goal difference.
Sampaoli is expected to persist with the bulk of the team who started against Uruguay, with Messi leading a potent front three that also features Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi.
Argentina were frustrated by a Uruguayan side who defended in depth and packed the midfield. With Venezuela likely to use similar tactics, the coach has urged his team to show their firepower.
"We have to be more aggressive in the last third and get more people in the area," he said. "We have to ensure that the team wins."
Chile have hardly been any more convincing themselves. They owe their fourth place to a Fifa sanction which converted a 0-0 home draw with Bolivia into a 3-0 win, after the visitors fielded an ineligible player.
They face Bolivia again today in La Paz, an awkward tie at altitude even if their opponents are already eliminated.
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