SAO PAULO: Hours after Lionel Messi was suspended by FIFA for four World Cup qualifying matches, Argentina lost 2-0 to Bolivia in the altitude of La Paz on Tuesday and heightened its risk of missing a spot at Russia 2018.
Argentina dropped from third to fifth place, remaining on 22 points in South American qualifying with four games to play and putting coach Edgardo Bauza under intense pressure to step aside.
South America has four direct spots at the World Cup, and the fifth-ranked team goes into an inter-continental playoff against the Oceania qualifying winner for another spot at Russia next year.
While Argentina struggled, Colombia had a 2-0 win at Ecuador, posting its first win in Quito in 20 years and ensuring it will end the round in second or third spot. Ecuador dropped out of the top five for the first time, slipping to sixth with 20 points.
The result at Quito opened the prospect of a possible early qualification for leaders Brazil, which has won seven straight and has 30 points from 13 matches in qualifying.
If the Brazilians beat seventh position Paraguay in Sao Paulo, they will have enough points to secure a top-five spot in qualifying.
Also on Tuesday Copa America champion Chile beat last-place Venezuela 3-1 in Santiago and climbed back to fourth spot with 23 points.
Argentina’s best chance of qualifying for the next World Cup seemingly relies on winning an appeal to have Messi’s suspension shortened. The Barcelona star made offensive remarks to a Brazilian linesman in the 1-0 victory against Chile last Thursday and, if the FIFA ruling prevails, will only return to the team in their last match for qualifiers in October against Ecuador.
From a TV set in the locker room, Messi saw Argentina little by little fade into an average side outrun by the Bolivians at the 3,600 meters of altitude. The last time the Argentines managed to win in La Paz was in 2005.
Of the five defenders Bauza wanted to field against the ninth-place Bolivians, only left-winger Marcos Rojo was available. Still, the Argentinians seemed to be handling the Bolivians, creating the best opportunities in the first 30 minutes. But then striker Juan Arce headed home a cross from Pablo Escobar in the 32nd minute to open the scoring for the hosts.
The Argentina started losing condition at altitude and Bolivia capitalized via striker Marcelo Moreno, who fired home from close range after a cross from Flores to make it 2-0 in the 52nd.
“We are alive and we want to qualify for the World Cup. This is a fight that we will keep fighting,” Bauza told a post-match news conference, before admitting there were big concerns within the squad. “Yes, the players are worried because no one likes to lose.”
The coach also said “it is strange” that Messi’s ban was decided so quickly. “It is regrettable that he could not play, but even more so that there was no time for me to work with someone else,” Bauza said. “I am a little surprised with the time they gave me to make the change.”
Argentina’s next games will be in August at Uruguay and in Buenos Aires against Venezuela. In October, the World Cup finalists will face Peru at home and Ecuador in Quito.
Midfielder James Rodriguez, the best player of the match in Quito, was only 5-years old the last time Colombia had an away win at Ecuador.
He started to break the Colombian drought at 20 minutes. Almost accidentally, Rodriguez touched the ball with his back after a low cross from Borja and it slowly went inside. At 32 minutes he started a play that finished in a similar goal scored by striker Juan Cuadrado — with his feet, though.
In the second half, Rodriguez helped Colombia control a match that could have ended with an even bigger goal difference in favor of the visitors.
Ecuador’s chances of a comeback were diminished when defender Luis Caicedo was sent off after a rough challenge on the hour. That means Ecuador won’t have one of their best defenders against Brazil in August.
Colombia now has 24 points and could end the round in second or third, depending on Uruguay’s result in Peru. In August coach Jose Pekerman’s team will play at Venezuela and then hosts leaders Brazil. In October, they will play against Paraguay at home and away at Peru.