Tuesday evening at the Estadio Monumental should have been marked with a party atmosphere among the Argentina faithful. Results elsewhere in World Cup qualifying had all gone the Albiceleste's way, and a win over already eliminated Venezuela would have seen the nation take a giant leap towards Russia.
The fact that the master plan failed to come to fruition is in part a reflection of a Vinotino resistence that bordered on the heroic as they somehow grabbed a 1-1 draw in Buenos Aires. But mostly it was down to another wayward, directionless performance from Lionel Messi's men that means their World Cup participation still hangs in the balance.
Messi would be forgiven for handing in his international retirement for a second time after gamely trying to change the course of a game that started brightly for the hosts but soon descended into tactical chaos. The Barcelona star was the lone beacon of calm in a team that ended the 90 minutes as a disorganised rabble, buzzing around the pitch in a vain attempt to secure a vital victory.
It was not to be, however. Having gone down 1-0 to Jhon Murillo's smash and grab goal with the defence in disarray, Argentina at least avoided one of the worst defeats in their history when Marcos Acuna's cross was turned by Rolf Feltscher into his own net. But it was still deeply disappointing to see so many world-class players, with only Messi and the bright Acuna as exceptions, lose their heads under pressure and play with a frightening lack of discipline.
It did not start that way, it is true. Jorge Sampaoli's men went straight for the jugular from kick-off, with defenders Javier Mascherano and Nicolas Otamendi essentially playing in midfield and seven players pushed further ahead around the Vinotinto box. Mauro Icardi saw much more of the ball than in Uruguay, and had more than one chance to open the scoring.
As feared, however, Venezuela were only emboldened having survived that early onslaught. They took Argentina's measure, and while there were scares throughout a breathless 90 minutes - Icardi will feel he had a strong case for a penalty in the second half, while substitute Javier Pastore saw a last-minute shot saved by the excellent 19-year-old Wuliker Farinez having been played in by the ubiquitous Messi - the away team more than merited their point.
"It is difficult to avoid 'Messi-dependency'. If you know you have the best in the world, you will always look for him," Sampaoli had told reporters before the game. The former Chile and Sevilla coach has had precious few minutes to break the addiction, and his game-plan for Venezuela had indeed seen Argentina play a more balanced, open game than that seen under predecessor Edgardo Bauza.
The problem is that as soon as the going got tough, the Albiceleste relapsed. Messi saw the ball shoved at his feet and was essentially told to rescue his nation once again, and this time he did not have the answer.
As a result Argentina were left with a draw against a team that was packed with inexperienced youngsters fresh from Venezuela's Under-20 World Cup finalists, and will go into the final qualifying games knowing that they could well be watching Russia 2018 on television if there is not a swift improvement.
These last two qualifiers have left Sampaoli's men in exactly the same position in which they began. Only a pair of damaging defeats for Chile avoided a worse fate going into October, but even so as it stands Argentina would need a play-off against New Zealand to make the finals next year.
On this evidence that is not a game they could take for granted. Nor is the assumption they will be there in the first place. Peru and Ecuador lie in wait in the last two qualifiers, and unless they show a great deal more than in these two extremely disappointing performances Argentina might as well forget about playing the next World Cup.