Argentina’s World Cup hopes were left hanging by a thread as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia in La Paz. Juan Carlos Arce and Martins Moreno grabbing the goals to sink the 2014 World Cup finalists.
The visitors were without Lionel Messi after the Argentina hero found out he was to be suspended for the next four games for using foul and abusive language towards an official during Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Chile. This just five hours before kick-off in the Estadio Hernando Siles, meaning the Barcelona forward will be available for just the final qualifier which, by the time it comes around, may be all but irrelevant should La Albiceleste fall further behind the pack.
Still it was the home side that started the brighter pressing the inexperienced Argentina side, that manager Edgardo Bauza had made eight changes to, and using the high altitude to their advantage with the ball gliding unusually through the pitch.
Winger Pablo Escobar gave Argentina cause for concern early one with two dazzling runs and crosses picking out his Bolivian teammates. Frantic Argentina defending stopped Moreno from giving his side an early lead.
Argentina tried valiantly to get to grips with the conditions as quickly as possible yet painted a picture of frustration as passes often went astray, and when they did get them right the first touch let them down.
It took the Messi-less visitors until the 28th minute to render their first clear opportunity, Angel Di Maria who was slipped through by Angel Correa only for the ball to escape the Paris Saint-Germain forward after his first touch, allowing Carlos Lampe to obstruct the ball’s path goalward.
If Argentina did not feel sick from the altitude of playing nearly 12,000 feet above sea level they soon would be feeling sick from Di Maria’s missed chance. Just three minutes later Bolivia took the lead through Arce. A hopeful Escobar cross was met by the diminutive midfielder and his clever flicked header alluded goalkeeper Serigo Romero on its way into the Argentina goal.
The goal did not seem to wake the Argentines up as the hosts carved their opponents, their swashbuckling attacking energy too much for Marcus Rojo and company to cope with.
Guido Pizarro made his debut in the engine room of the Argentina midfield but failed to stamp his authority on the game. Forward Lucas Pratto was preferred to Man City marksman Serigo Aguero up front. However, the Sao Paulo forward could do little to convince spectators that he deserved to add to his five international caps.
Bolivia went into half-time with their opponents on the ropes, yet with such attacking verve at Bauza’s disposal many would have been forgiven for thinking the solitary goal advantage would quickly evaporate after the interval. It did not happen.
Instead Bolivia picked up from where they left off in the first half. The second half was just six minutes old when Moreno doubled his sides advantage. With Matias Caruzzo ball watching, Martins Moreno took no chances once collecting Jorge Flores’ cross, after the left back had beaten Mateo Musacchio for pace, belting the ball past Romero.
Soon after seeing the deficit doubled, manager Edgardo Bauza called for Aguero to fish his team out of a sizeable hole. Aguero one of the high-profile names to be left out of the starting line-up along with City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi, Juventus hitman Pablo Dybala and former Napoli favourite, Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Aguero was unable to rescue his side from what would be a fourth defeat in seven visits to the Bolivian capital. Instead it was Aguero’s strike partner, Pratto, that spurned the best chance to get the World Cup finalists back into the game. Pratto managed to get himself free at the far post before heading his effort comfortably wide. Di Maria could only look on in exacerbation, perhaps knowing what was on the horizon should his side fail to find a way back into the contest.
Bolivia could have added to their lead with Moreno unable to wriggle free from two markers to put away another inviting ball from Flores.
In the end the victory was not enough to save Bolivia, but it certainly deepened Argentina’s crisis. After losing their captain and star man hours before kick-off the inquest from the scathing Argentina media will begin about where Argentina go from here.
A colossal encounter with Uruguay in Montevideo in September now awaits Bauza’s squad, the Uruguayans one point ahead of Argentina in the qualification table, with Colombia, Ecuador and Chile breathing heavily down their necks.
Messi will be eligible to return to the starting line-up for what could be a crunch encounter against Ecuador. But while Argentina fans circle October 10th on their calendars for his return they face a must win, or rather a must not lose, clash against Luis Suarez and company before awkward visits from Venezuela and Peru, Peru still not mathematically eliminated from qualification either.
Argentina’s World Cup hopes hang perilously in the balance. One more defeat in a tight qualification group could see them all but eliminated. A performance as flat as week old Coca-Cola in La Paz. Bauza may use the Messi suspension as a smokescreen to shield his side, and indeed himself, from further criticism but Argentina’s problem run much deeper than that.