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Argentina stinks and Lionel Messi might miss the 2018 World Cup

A year after threatening to retire, then returning to Argentina, Messi’s team is still a wreck.

Brasil Global Tour - Brazil v Argentina Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images for ICC

Losing the 2016 Copa America was a heartbreaker for Lionel Messi — it was his third consecutive defeat in an international final in three seasons. That, coupled with the Argentine FA’s reported financial problems and unprofessionalism, led Messi to declare that he was retiring from international soccer. Other players threatened to follow him. Ultimately, the players were talked into returning and attempting to qualify Argentina for the World Cup.

That hasn’t gone so well. AFA has made two coaching changes since, replacing Gerardo Martino with Edgardo Bauza, then firing him to make way for Jorge Sampaoli. Early returns haven’t been great — Argentina drew both of its matches during the last international break, then recorded a 0-0 draw against Peru on Thursday, leaving the Albiceleste sixth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

Sixth place would see Argentina not only miss out on the automatic qualifying places, but also an intercontinental playoff for a World Cup spot. Not only that, but Paraguay is just one point back and should win its final game, putting even more pressure on Messi and co. Argentina really could miss out on the World Cup entirely.

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying standings

via FIFA

The top four teams in CONMEBOL make the World Cup automatically, while fifth place goes to an intercontinental playoff. The scenarios for Argentina failing to even make the playoff aren’t that convoluted. A draw or loss away to Ecuador in the final game would likely see Messi and the Albiceleste miss out on a trip to Russia 2018. Here’s what the last round looks like.

Round 18

via FIFA

Despite Ecuador’s losses in its last two games, La Tri has a great record at home. Argentina often struggles at elevation, and Ecuador’s home stadium in Quito is 9,127 feet above sea level. Paraguay will like its chances of picking up maximum points at home, and while an away game in Brazil should theoretically be Chile’s toughest of the tournament, the Selecao has already qualified for the World Cup. Brazil could call in an experimental team, or if its stars start, they might not be as motivated as usual.

Argentina will be hoping that Peru and Ecuador draw. If they do, Argentina will get into the World Cup with a win over Ecuador.

What’s wrong with Argentina?

The entire Albiceleste attack is built around waiting for Messi to make something magic happen. Players like Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi, and Angel Di Maria are used to making plays for themselves at club level, but with Argentina they seem to stand around and differ to Messi. As Barca Blaugranes points out, Messi was involved in every single chance against Uruguay. Even with a new manager, Argentina didn’t have a plan beyond getting the ball to Messi and asking him to do everything.

The story was the same against Venezuela, with Messi’s teammates repeatedly failing to help him at all.

On paper, Argentina probably has the deepest and most talented set of attackers in international soccer. But somehow, it has just 16 goals in qualifying, second-worst in South America. Even notoriously negative Paraguay and struggling Venezuela have scored more than Argentina.

But Argentina should still squeak through, right?

Coming into Thursday, that looked like the most likely scenario. But after the 0-0 draw with Peru, there are more ways for Argentina to miss top four than ways for them to make it. Right now, fifth place looks like the most likely thing, though it wouldn’t be that weird for Argentina to draw in Ecuador and miss out entirely.

If Argentina finishes in fifth place, it will meet New Zealand, who it will be expected to beat handily. The Kiwis did not grab a single point at the 2017 Confederations Cup and lost 9-3 on aggregate to Mexico in the intercontinental playoff to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Still, it’s stunning that Argentina is even in this position. CONMEBOL has arguably the toughest qualifying tournament of any confederation, but Argentina has more good players than anyone else besides Brazil, as well as arguably the best player in the history of the sport. It should finish in the top four comfortably.

A World Cup without Messi and Argentina won’t feel right, but it’s become a very real possibility.