In danger of missing out on a World Cup finals for the first time since 1970, the return of Lionel Messi could not be more crucial for Argentina. Two wins from their last seven Qualifiers has seen the two-time World Cup winners – ranked third in the world by FIFA and on their third coach of the qualification process – leave themselves with a worrying run-in to come. Sitting fifth in the CONMEBOL standings with four games to go, Argentina would miss out on an automatic qualification spot as it stands, and instead face the winner of the Oceania qualification process (most likely New Zealand) in a play-off to ensure they can plan for a summer in Russia. Even that eventuality isn’t guaranteed, however. Ecuador are two points behind Argentina ahead of Thursday’s round of fixtures, and Jorge Sampaoli’s first World Cup Qualifier seems a daunting one, as Argentina travel to Montevideo to take on third-placed Uruguay. The hysteria completely overshadowed their next match high in the altitude of La Paz, as Bolivia swept aside their opponents with ease, ultimately bringing an end to Edgardo Bauza’s disappointing reign.
Argentina, without their talisman, were simply not the same force. Now, with that ban overturned on appeal, optimism is high once more, and despite a multitude of talent available to Sampaoli, the significance of Messi’s return has not been lost on the former Seville boss. “I have had the good fortune to arrive with the national team at the time that Messi’s ban was lifted,” Sampaoli said last month. “We have the best player in the world [in Messi]. From him the team is born.” “To leave Messi alone at this moment is a mistake. We need to surround him with the best players possible,” he said, while acknowledging that “there are no players who have more privilege than others” with the exception of Messi. The overturning of the ban has not gone down well with opponents, wary of the galvanising effect Messi can have. “I wish all the rules were the same for everybody,” Chile and Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal complained to AND Radio back in May. “It’s good for Argentina, for Messi and for football. It’s always nice to watch Messi playing for the national team because he always gives everything, so good for him, but I wish all the rules were the same everybody.” Nerves will be rife in the Uruguay dressing room, too. They have lost their last three Qualifiers, conceding nine in the process. Messi, on the back of reaching 350 La Liga goals at the weekend against Alaves, with a point to prove upon his return, isn’t exactly what the vulnerable Uruguayans need. Three points against Uruguay should then be followed by three more against bottom side Venezuela on Tuesday, before a winnable home clash with Peru looms in October, but it really all looks to be down to one man. Sergio Aguero has scored once for his country since September 2015, while the next highest scoring striker in Sampaoli’s squad is Joaquin Correa, with one strike to his name. “We are screwed,” Diego Maradona told Radio Rivadavia back in April. “Without Messi, qualification is doubtful.” Those doubts have disappeared with Messi’s return on the horizon. Now, he must deliver or face the unprecedented scenario of World Cup watching from afar. But there is hope, in the shape of a returning hero. Messi’s own World Cup qualification campaign looked to be over, as he was handed a four-match suspension for abusing an assistant referee in Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Chile in March
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