Argentina on brink of missing World Cup; Messi's last chance
After missing chance after chance against Peru, Lionel Messi looked skyward as if seeking divine intervention. Even that may not be enough to prevent Messi and Argentina from missing their first World Cup since 1970.
This grim reality is setting in for generations of Argentines who have never experienced such a thing, including Messi, who will turn 31 during the World Cup next year in Russia.
"One can't ask more of Messi," Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
Yes and no.
In a decade of winning trophies for his Barcelona club, the best player of his generation has not delivered a single major trophy for Argentina. Russia might be the last chance if he can get there.
In a goalless draw against Peru on Thursday, he was pretty much on his own, lacking the support he gets in Spain. He had a half-dozen chances, the best when he hit the post 35 seconds into the second half.
Argentina will reach at least a play-off if it wins its last qualifier on Tuesday in Quito, Ecuador, where all visiting teams gasp for air at 2,850 metres (9,350 feet).
Argentina is out with a loss. A draw might get the Albicelestes into the play-offs, but that scenario is iffy.
In the event of a draw, Argentina makes the play-offs if Peru loses its final match with Colombia, and Paraguay fails to beat Venezuela.
Argentina's problem? Goals.
In the last four matches, have scored just one. Sampaoli, whose teams are known for their attacking, has been in charge for three of those games.
To make matters worse, the lone goal was an own-goal against lowly Venezuela; this from the World Cup runners-up in Brazil three years ago who lost to Germany 1-0 in the final.
Argentina has only 16 goals in 17 qualifiers. Only Bolivia is worse, with 14.
"We are a very strong team in knowing what to look for in each match," said Sampaoli, the third coach for Argentina in this World Cup cycle. "I'm at peace. These are strong players by nature."
But will that be enough?