The equation is simple even if the task is not: win in Ecuador and Argentina will, at worst, face a play-off against New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup. Given Chile have to play in Brazil, victory in Quito would probably mean an automatic passage to Russia. But Argentina have only ever won once at altitude in Ecuador and, more significantly, they are playing almost entirely without belief, as though failure had been preordained for them.
As the columnist Pablo Vignone noted in La Nación, “everything that could have gone wrong has gone worse; everything that could have been done badly has been done lousily”. It is not unreasonable to think Argentina’s position is in part the result of misfortune – posts seem to have got bigger and goalkeepers better against them; they would currently be in the playoff spot had Bolivia not fielded an ineligible player against Chile, and while Lionel Messi is not the only recipient of a baffling suspension from Conmebol, he is the only one so important to his team. But none of that should disguise the fact that this is principally the result of massive institutional failure.
Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli have had striking successes over the past decade: none – yet, perhaps, in the case of Sampaoli – have been able to shake the malaise that is dragging Argentina down.
It is not just on the bench that there has been an unhelpful swirl. In the 17 qualifiers so far, Argentina have used 42 players. In the past five games they have used four centre-forwards. None have scored. In fact in those five games Argentina’s only goals have been a penalty from Lionel Messi and an own goal from the Venezuela defender Rolf Feltscher.
That inconsistency of selection points to a broader issue. Argentina have beenable to choose four different strikers only because of the remarkable talent at their disposal: how many other countries could cycle through the likes of Lucas Pratto, Gonzalo Higuaín, Mauro Icardi and Darío Benedetto, while leaving out Sergio Agüero?
That breeds impatience because there is always an alternative; players come into the side and are never given time to settle, which in turn adds to the anxiety induced by a 24-year trophy drought and three lost finals in the past four summers.