What seemed as an improbability mere months ago has now turned into a real strong possibility – world power Argentina is in grave danger of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia next summer.
The wild twists and turns of Matchday 17 on Thursday night sets up a wild final set of matches on Tuesday evening as four of the 10 CONMEBOL participants seek automatic qualification, while the fifth-place team will earn a playoff bid against New Zealand to decide their World Cup fate in a month.
Three of the matches played at the same time on Thursday saw wild swings in the final 11 minutes, as five goals were scored and positions in the table were being shuffled like a deck of cards.
But it was the game in which no goals were scored that sent the biggest shockwaves into the standings. Peru went to La Bombonera and held host Argentina to a 0-0 draw. The only time Argentina haven’t qualified for the World Cup was in 1970 – and it was Peru that locked up a draw at Boca Juniors’ home ground to knock out the Argentines then, as well.
Argentina has now played 435 minutes without scoring in qualifying, as Lionel Messi’s penalty kick goal against Chile was the last time La Albiceleste scored. They have gone goalless in three games since and the 1-1 draw against Venezuela came on a Venezuelan own goal. Can one of the world’s most marketable and popular players be sitting at home next summer in possibly his last chance to play in a World Cup in his prime? It’s all on the table now.
Colombia all but had one foot in after Radamel Falcao’s goal in the 79th minute gave the fans in Barranquilla much to shout about. Remarkably, Oscar Cardozo leveled in the 89th minute for Paraguay and Antonio Sanabria netted the winner for the visitors in stoppage time to give them their third win in five trips to Colombia. The Colombians now face a do-or-die trip to Peru, but will be scoreboard watching like many of the other mid-pack teams.
Chile escaped with a 2-1 triumph to knock Ecuador out of the running. Eduardo Vargas gave La Roja the early lead 22 minutes in, but Ecuador leveled with eight minutes left. Alexis Sanchez netted the winner to send the Santiago crowd into a frenzy and keep the Chileans alive. They travel to Brazil to meet the winners of the qualifying round Tuesday, while Ecuador is reduced to being a spoiler when hosting Argentina at their high-altitude Quito fortress.
Uruguay are all but through, taking very few risks in a 0-0 draw at Venezuela. They’ll be the heaviest favorite of all by a long shot on Tuesday against visiting Bolivia. The Bolivians held Brazil to a 0-0 draw in La Paz and continued Brazil’s winless streak there dating to 1985. But Brazil coach Tite has started his tenure with nine wins and two draws in his 11 matches.
The current table looks as follows:
1. Brazil 38
2. Uruguay 28
3. Chile 26
4. Colombia 26
5. Peru 25
6. Argentina 25
7. Paraguay 24
8. Ecuador 20
9. Bolivia 14
10. Venezuela 9
Brazil are through but can deny Chile, which probably needs a draw to stay in the top five.
Uruguay are through for all intents and purposes unless things go horribly awry in Montevideo.
Colombia travels to Peru in a match that could see both sides go through if there’s a draw – but Peru is one point behind Colombia and will not advance to the playoffs if Argentina or Paraguay win, so the Peruvians will likely be playing for a home win.
Paraguay will hope to beat Venezuela at home and count on 27 points being enough – they could leap three teams in front of them if they catch some breaks.
And Argentina must hope against all hope that now-eliminated Ecuador comes out flat, but with a chance to keep one of the world’s most popular sides home next summer, there’s only a small chance of that happening.
It’s all there for the taking on Tuesday. Each match will start at 7:30 Eastern time in the soccer world’s most grueling and exciting competition.