Argentina, Chile seek advantage in S America race

 05 Sep 2017 - 0:37

AFP

Montevideo:  Lionel Messi and Argentina will seek to maintain the pressure on Chile with a victory over Venezuela today as South America’s 2018 World Cup qualifying race enters the home stretch.
A faltering campaign has left Argentina fifth in the standings with three games remaining, just outside the top four spots which guarantee automatic entry to next year’s finals in Russia.
It would still take a dramatic sequence of results for the unthinkable -- a World Cup without Argentina and Messi -- to become reality.
Even if Jorge Sampaoli’s side fail to lock up automatic qualification, and finish fifth, they would still be favourites to qualify via a two-leg playoff against a team from Oceania, almost certain to be New Zealand.
Yet the gloom that has enveloped the Argentinian squad throughout the qualifiers means that little is being taken for granted ahead of Tuesday’s game at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires.
An uninspiring 0-0 draw with Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday left Argentina level on 23 points with fourth-placed Chile, who lead on goal difference.
Sampaoli is expected to persist with the bulk of the team who started against Uruguay, with Messi leading a potent front three that features Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi. Javier Mascherano could return for the suspended Gabriel Mercado, while Ever Banega may replace Guido Pizarro.
Argentina were frustrated by a Uruguayan side which defended in depth and packed the midfield. With Venezuela likely to use similar tactics, Sampaoli has urged his team to be more aggressive today.
Despite the nervyness of Argentina’s campaign, their fans can console themselves by the thought that Chile have hardly been any more convincing.
The South American champions owe their fourth place in the table to a FIFA sanction which converted a 0-0 home draw with Bolivia into a 3-0 win after the Bolivians fielded an ineligible player.
The Chileans face Bolivia again today  in La Paz, an awkward tie at altitude even if their opponents, who are already eliminated, have little to play for.
Chile’s faltering qualification campaign suffered a fresh jolt last week with an abject 3-0 home defeat to Paraguay in Santiago.
The Chileans, who clinched back-to-back Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016, have been beset by turmoil, with Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez struggling to find his best form and captain Arturo Vidal raging at his media critics.