With just three games to go in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying tournament, Argentina's hopes of making Russia 2018 hang in the balance.
The Albiceleste go into Tuesday's clash against Venezuela knowing that only a win will suffice to keep them in the hunt for one of the qualifying spots, while they also will be watching nervously for results elsewhere in South America.
Could the two-time World Cup winners really miss out on a finals for the first time since 1970? We take a look at the final stages of the qualifiers and weigh up the chances for Jorge Sampaoli's men.
THE STORY SO FAR
With three games left to play, eight CONMEBOL nations are still in the running for Russia 2018.
Brazil are already assured of their place in the World Cup, while Bolivia and Venezuela will have to wait another four years for their own chance of making the finals after facing early elimination.
That leaves Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru and Ecuador still in the running for the three remaining spots, plus a further play-off position for the team that finishes in fifth. With just five points separating eighth-placed Ecuador from Uruguay in second, the next three matches have the potential to change everything before the competition comes to an end.
With just six wins in 15 games and a paltry 15 goals scored, the Albiceleste have performed well below expectations. Against Uruguay, Sampaoli became the third man to take the reins in these qualifiers, after Gerardo Martino and Edgardo Bauza failed to make the likes of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero fire on all cylinders.
Mathematically, Argentina are still in with a great chance of making the finals, but they will need to improve drastically to secure their place in an extremely competitive final stretch.
THE LAST QUALIFYING FAILURE
Of the 20 World Cup tournaments to date, Argentina have only failed to qualify on one occasion (the nation's absences in 1938, 1950 and 1954 were due to a refusal to compete in the tournament). In 1970 the nation were drawn alongside Peru and Bolivia in a seemingly straightforward Group A, but failed to get past their Andean opponents and make the Mexico finals.
Things started badly with a 3-1 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz, and a second away defeat to the Inca left Adolfo Pedernera's charges reeling. Argentina were left needing victories in both their home games to make the cut.
Bolivia were dispatched 1-0, but two goals from Oswaldo Ramirez secured Peru a 2-2 draw in Buenos Aires that meant they made Mexico 1970 over the Albiceleste.
WHAT GAMES REMAIN?
|September 5||Venezuela (H)|
|October 5||Peru (H)|
|October 10||Ecuador (A)|
Argentina fans can nevertheless be cheered by a relatively comfortable run-in to this qualifying campaign. The quest to reach Russia continues in Buenos Aires' Estadio Monumental on Tuesday, where Sampaoli's men take on rock-bottom Venezuela in a match that should only end in one result for the Albiceleste superstars.
Peru await in October, in a game that could bring back memories of that nail-biting campaign to reach South Africa 2010, complete with pouring rain, Martin Palermo's late goal and Diego Maradona's unforgettable dive across the Monumental turf. Argentina, however, will be desperate to sew up qualification at the end of that game — if not, they will be forced to get a result in the altitude of Quito, a variable that always makes for the most difficult of encounters.
HOW WILL THEY LINE UP VS. VENEZUELA?
Having seen his competitive debut on the Argentina bench end in a turgid 0-0 draw against Uruguay, Sampaoli will make a handful of changes for the visit of the Vinotinto. One of those switches is an enforced one: the suspended Gabriel Mercado drops out of the starting XI and in comes Javier Mascherano, playing in the centre of defence.
Ever Banega has fulfilled his own suspension and will enter for Guido Pizarro in the engine room, with the Sevilla man included to add more creativity to a sector which looked desperately short of ideas on Thursday. The other change is also little surprise, with Marcos Acuna making way for Lautaro Acosta on the right.
Sampaoli will persist with his new attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, which failed to fire in the Estadio Centenario. Icardi in particular was starved of the ball in a frustrating game, and should enjoy much more space and possession against Venezuela, who are merely playing for pride.
WHO AWAITS IN A PLAY-OFF?
If Argentina do not move from their current fifth place by the time that World Cup qualifying comes to an end, they will have a second chance to sneak into Russia 2018 via a play-off.
While in previous years the fifth-placed CONMEBOL team have taken on North American or Asian opponents, this time around Oceania's top qualifying entrant lies in wait. That means a clash with New Zealand, who triumphed 8-3 over Solomon Islands on aggregate.
An Oceania nation also featured in the last play-off Argentina were forced to play in order to qualify for a World Cup. In 1993 the Albiceleste took on Australia in a two-legged tie when, under the old qualifying system, they finished a distant second to Colombia in Group A. Alex Tobin's own goal eventually sent the South Americans through 2-1 on aggregate after 180 nail-biting minutes for the giants.