BUENOS AIRES • The prospect of a World Cup without Lionel Messi edged nearer to reality on Thursday, as Argentina struggled to a 0-0 draw with Peru in Buenos Aires.
Twice champions and 2014 runners-up Argentina are in sixth place in the South American group, with only the top four teams qualifying automatically for Russia.
They visit Ecuador at high altitude in Quito in the final round of matches on Tuesday.
It is not a happy hunting ground, as they lost two of their last three World Cup qualifiers there and drawn the other.
Their last World Cup qualifying win in the thin air of the Ecuadorian capital was in 2001.
Still, they can take heart from wins in Quito by Brazil, Chile and Peru during this qualifying campaign, proving that teams can adapt to tough conditions 2,850m above sea level.
With either fifth-placed Peru, level on points with Argentina, or fourth-placed Colombia, a point ahead of the two nations, set to drop points in their final game against each other, Los Albiceleste are guaranteed at least fifth place with a win on Tuesday.
WORLD CUP QUALIFYING, SOUTH AMERICA
FINAL ROUND (TUESDAY)
Paraguay v Venezuela
Uruguay v Bolivia
Peru v Colombia
Brazil v Chile
Ecuador v Argentina
• Top four, automatically
• Fifth place: Play-off v New Zealand
Coach Jorge Sampaoli believes his men will be in Russia next year.
"I am hopeful and confident that, if we play with the conviction that we showed today, we will be in the World Cup," he told a press conference, even after Argentina's drought of without a competitive goal from open play extended past the 450-minute mark.
"Today Argentina were far superior to Peru, playing with a lot of authority.
"The situation is not comfortable, but the ranking still depends on us."
The fifth-placed team will advance to a play-off against New Zealand next month.
Barcelona star Messi hit the post in the second half at La Bombonera, but it was another desperately disappointing display by the hosts.
Once again they struggled to turn a wealth of possession - 66 per cent - into goals despite 22 shots.
Sampaoli was still seeking the right balance for his side in his third competitive match in charge.
He ditched his favoured back three for a 4-2-3-1 system, with forward Alejandro Gomez earning just his second international cap.
Fernando Gago was brought in to replace Ever Banega an hour into the game, only for the midfielder to rupture his knee ligaments in his first international appearance since in 2015.
But there was no bigger blow for the world No. 4 side than being in danger of missing their first World Cup Finals since 1970.
Peru, who are hoping to go to the Finals for the first time in 36 years, host Colombia in Lima on Tuesday.
Said their coach Ricardo Gareca: "The good thing is that we are in control of our own destiny."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS