Buenos Aires — Argentina have reached three major finals in three years, but the team that came so close to winning the 2014 World Cup face crunch games against Peru and Ecuador that will determine if they miss out on the global showpiece event for the first time since 1970.
Argentina desperately need to beat Peru at home on Thursday and go to Ecuador for their final match five days later. They lie fifth in the 10-team South American group.
"Now it’s gotten complicated," coach Jorge Sampaoli said after they drew their last match at home to Venezuela.
The top four teams qualify automatically for the 2018 tournament in Russia and the fifth-placed side play New Zealand in a two-legged playoff for an additional spot.
Former Chile and Seville coach Sampaoli took over four months ago with the sole task of getting what is arguably the world’s greatest collection of attacking talent to Russia. The problem, however, has been how to get the best out of it.
Argentina have so many options in midfield and up front that players such as Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Pastore are not automatic choices. Higuain, who played in nine of Argentina’s first 13 qualifiers, was dropped from the last two squads and Aguero, who will miss the next two games through injury, has started five of the last six on the bench.
The players chosen have struggled to reproduce their club form at international level, with Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala among those who have been less than influential when wearing the blue-and-white stripes.
Argentina lost at home to Ecuador and Paraguay and failed to beat Venezuela, a team with just one win from 16 games, both home and away. They have scored only 16 goals, with only Bolivia managing fewer.
Another problem has come off the field, where turmoil within the Argentinian Football Association has meant three coaches have led the team since the qualifying campaign began two years ago.
The chopping and changing have prevented the side from finding a settled style of play.
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 the 2016 Copa America.
Sampaoli has recalled Fernando Gago after a two-year absence and called up two players who have never started a competitive international.
In a bid to raise the pressure on their opponents, the home side have moved the game to Boca Juniors’ tightly packed Bombonera stadium from their traditional home at River Plate’s Monumental.