BUENOS AIRES • Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli admitted his team had blown a golden opportunity to force themselves into the automatic qualifying places for next year's World Cup following a 1-1 draw with Venezuela on Tuesday.
Sampaoli blamed poor first-half finishing for his side's failure to take all three points against the Venezuelans.
"We have two games left against Peru and Ecuador and we need to win both of them," the 57-year-old said.
"We had three chances to score in the first half and everything could have been settled. We must continue to fight in attack."
The 2014 World Cup runners-up had won all six of their previous home qualifiers against Venezuela and were expected to do the same in Buenos Aires against the team rooted at the bottom of the South American group and without a win in 10 games.
Venezuela were already well out of the running for Russia, but they got the opening goal just four minutes into the second half.
Jhon Murillo ran onto an incisive through ball and expertly chipped against the advancing goalkeeper Sergio Romero to give the visitors a surprise lead.
The advantage, though, lasted just four minutes. Marcos Acuna, who had replaced the injured Angel di Maria after 25 minutes, fought off his marker and his cross resulted in an own goal by Rolf Feltscher.
"Venezuela started to grow (in confidence) when they realised we couldn't finish them off," Sampaoli added. "We let a great opportunity escape us. That's football and it can happen. The important thing is we all push so Argentina can be at the 2018 World Cup."
Argentina were not the only heavyweight South American side to slip up on Tuesday on the road to next year's Finals in Russia.
Copa America champions Chile crashed to a 1-0 defeat by Bolivia in La Paz.
The results left both Argentina and Chile adrift of the four automatic qualifying places and set up a nail-biting final two rounds of matches next month.
Argentina are fifth in the standings with 24 points from 16 games while Chile are sixth with 23 points.
The Argentinians - who would face a play-off against New Zealand if they remain fifth - host fourth-placed Peru next month in Buenos Aires before an awkward final game at altitude against Ecuador.
Chile, meanwhile, will face Ecuador in Santiago on Oct 5, before heading to Brazil for their final qualifier five days later.
Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi echoed Sampaoli's sentiments after watching his side slide to a dispiriting loss.
"We will fight, we will make the greatest effort possible, we believe that we have the ability to compete with the best and we will try to obtain the results that allow us to qualify," said Pizzi.
Although Chile have a difficult run-in against Ecuador and Brazil, Pizzi said his side had not lost hope.
"There are two matches left, I'm going to fight and my players are going to fight, with all the force we have," Pizzi added.
At the top of the table, Brazil have already qualified and assured themselves of first place. They drew 1-1 with Colombia to stand on 37 points.
Uruguay moved to the brink of qualification with a 2-1 win over Paraguay in Asuncion.
Paraguay, riding high after a brilliant 3-0 win over Chile in Santiago last month, were left stunned by two opportunistic Uruguay goals.
Federico Valverde fired Uruguay into the lead with a deflected shot on 76 minutes before Paraguay's Gustavo Gomez netted an own goal.
The result leaves Uruguay second in the standings with 27 points. A win in Venezuela in their next game would see them through to the Finals.
Seventh-placed Paraguay still have an outside chance of qualification but will probably need to beat Colombia in their next game before wrapping up their campaign against Venezuela.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS