Argentina reduced the chances of missing out on the next FIFA World Cup by winning their must-win game against Chile on Thursday night. Less than three years after appearing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup final, a Lionel Messi penalty gave "La Albiceleste" a much-needed boost in their bid to reach the 2018 edition.
Before the game, The Guardian told us this world cup qualifying campaign was "not a crisis; not yet." Yet for a country that has only ever failed to qualify for one FIFA World Cup (they missed out at Mexico 1970), to find themselves in a must-win game at this late stage in qualifying was clearly the cause of some "anxiety" in the country.
There was one other twist of drama to add into the game in the Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti.
Argentina's opponents were their near neighbors to the west, Chile, who began the match one place and one point above them in the FIFA World Cup CONMEBOL standings. Recent history was also on the side of Chileans, who could boast consecutive victories over Argentina in the last two editions of the Copa America.
In that last Copa America final, Argentina's principal playmaker, Lionel Messi, failed once more to inspire his team to victory. It is one in a long list of runners-up medals that the Argentina national team has received (there have been three in the last three years, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup), and could have been prevented had he converted a first-half penalty that night in the U.S. last June.
So, the stage was set on Thursday. Argentina needed to beat their recent adversaries, Chile. In doing so, they would leapfrog their neighbors in the standings and keep their hopes alive for automatic qualification to the next FIFA World Cup. And in the middle of the action was Messi; this time he didn't disappoint.
The game did not start well for Argentina, Jose Fuenzalida bundling the ball over the Argentinian line in the 7th minute. Thankfully for the blue-and-white shirted players, that goal was ruled out for offside. Settling to the task at hand, Argentina's Angel Di Maria began to pose a constant attacking threat. In the 16th minute, his hard work paid off, winning a penalty when he was brought down by Fuenzalida.
Up stepped Messi and, this time, he made no mistake, slotting home his 58th goal for Argentina. He could have added to his tally in the second half but shot high and wide when presented with another opportunity by Di Maria.
That Argentina held on for the win at all was no small feat.
Chile, desperate to maintain their own FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign (which ends in October with a daunting trip to Brazil), hit the bar and missed several great chances. Not least among the Chilean misses was that of Nicolas Castillo, who shot wide late on.
But, for the home side, gaining three crucial points clearly mattered more than the style of their victory. As Argentina manager, Edgardo Bauza, said in his post-match news conference, "the important thing was winning" (translated from below).With his goal enough to see them home, Messi moved Argentina up into 3rd position in the CONMEBOL standings. But with five rounds of matches remaining, Argentina still has work to do to reach the FIFA World Cup in Russia. After all Chile, now in 6th place, sit just two points behind Argentina and only the top four spots qualify automatically.
While Argentina's upcoming games against Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela should be comfortable enough, two crunch games still remain. Argentina will play away against two other nations hopeful of automatic qualification. First up is Uruguay on August 28 before Argentina finish their campaign in Ecuador on October 10.
"La Albiceleste" will no doubt be hoping that this last fixture doesn't become another must-win game.
While Argentina may still be far from guaranteed a place at the next FIFA World Cup, Lionel Messi's goal may allow the football-mad nation breathe a little easier tonight.
[Featured Image by Yanukit/iStock]