BUENOS AIRES • The unthinkable prospect of a World Cup without Argentina or Lionel Messi could move a step closer to becoming reality today, as the South American giants prepare to face arch-rivals Chile in a crucial qualifier on the road to Russia 2018.
Argentina, who last failed to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, saw their progress towards next year's Finals go awry last year, when back-to-back draws with Venezuela and Peru were followed by defeats against Paraguay and Brazil.
Although they bounced back to beat Colombia 3-0 in a home qualifier last November, they remain outside the automatic qualifying places in fifth place, with 19 points from 12 games.
A defeat against fourth-placed Chile (20) today in Buenos Aires would leave Argentina further adrift of the automatic qualifying spots.
And if sixth-placed Colombia (18) beat lowly Bolivia (7) in their home game, as expected, Argentina could even finish the day further down the pecking order, outside of the fifth-place play-off berth they currently occupy.
With a trip to face Bolivia in the thin air of La Paz awaiting them next Tuesday - where Argentina have rarely performed well - it means the two-time World Cup-winners can ill afford to slip up against the Chileans.
The only consolation for Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza is that Chile are grappling with their own set of problems, notably the suspension of Arturo Vidal and a fitness concern surrounding Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez.
Number of consecutive World Cups Argentina have qualified for, since the ignominy of missing out in 1970.
Sanchez trained with the team in Santiago this week despite suffering an ankle injury while on Arsenal duty last weekend.
Argentina players are still sticking to their decision dating back to November not to talk to the media.
The squad were upset by a report then that said Ezequiel Lavezzi had been smoking marijuana at the complex where Argentina were preparing for their home tie against Colombia.
After the match, Messi read a statement to the media at a news conference attended by the whole squad in which they said they would not speak to reporters until further notice.
Veteran midfielder Jorge Valdivia, 33, who has not played for Chile since 2015, has been recalled to the squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Argentina and Venezuela.
"I'm happy to be back on the roster, to train, to be able to get back together with the squad," he said at a pre-match conference.
"I'm very excited to play, especially being back from a long time."
On facing Argentina, Valdivia was cautious in his assessment.
"Argentina is also going to want to win, it is going to be a difficult match. They have players who are playing at a high level but I believe our squad is qualified to go to Argentina and have a good game," he said.
"Chile have the experience to take the game to Argentina.
"I believe that under the guidance of our coach (Juan Antonio Pizzi) we can get closer to the World Cup, which is what we are targeting."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
ARGENTINA V CHILE
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