A World Cup without Argentina? Without five-time Player of the Year Lionel Messi?
It could happen.
With two games remaining in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, Argentina sits in fifth place among the 10 South American teams and only the top four earn automatic berths to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fifth-place team enters a two-leg playoff against top Oceania team New Zealand.
Brazil already clinched a spot with 37 points, 10 ahead of second-place Uruguay. Colombia is third with 26, and Peru, which hasn’t reached a World Cup in 25 years, is fourth with 24 points after overcoming a hostile crowd and the altitude in Quito to beat Ecuador 2-1.
Argentina also has 24 points, but Peru gets the edge in tie-breakers. Chile (23 points) is sixth and still in contention. Messi and his teammates still have a good chance of qualifying, as their final two games are against Peru and Ecuador, but both of those games look more dangerous now than they did at the start of the qualifying rounds — especially the one against upstart Peru.
If the Argentines couldn’t beat last-place Venezuela — they settled for a tie — there is no guarantee they will beat a Peruvian team on a four-match unbeaten streak or beat Ecuador at altitude in Quito.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli says his team’s slump is not Messi’s fault.
“Leo, for me, was above everyone else on the pitch, and if we can’t take advantage of him, it is worrying,” Sampaoli said on Wednesday after the 1-1 tie with Venezuela. Despite a loaded roster, Argentina has gone three qualifying games without a victory.
Messi, 30, is desperate to win the only trophy missing from his résumé. Many fans feel he needs a World Cup trophy, along with his club accolades, to join Maradona as Argentina’s best of all time. Others feel he has done enough, even without a World Cup trophy, to be mentioned in the same sentence as Maradona and Pele.
Whether Messi is as good as Maradona will remain up for debate. But one thing is for sure: A World Cup without Messi, Argentina, and their spirited singing fans won’t be as much fun.
Meanwhile, in CONCACAF, the United States stayed tied with Honduras for fourth place with two games to go after an 85th-minute Bobby Woods equalizer against Los Catrachos in Honduras. A loss in that game would have seriously hurt the U.S. team’s chances, but that one little point made all the difference because the U.S. beat Honduras 6-0 in their first meeting, so the goal differential would give the Americans the edge in a group tie-breaker.
Mexico has clinched with a 5-0-3 record. Costa Rica sits in second place and Panama is third. The top three automatically qualify, and the fourth-place team enters a playoff against Syria or Australia.
The two remaining U.S. games look winnable on paper — Oct. 6 at home against Panama and October 10 on the road at Trinidad and Tobago. In 1989, Paul Caligiuri scored a historic goal for the United States at Trinidad and Tobago, clinching the Americans a spot in the 1990 World Cup. The team has now qualified for seven consecutive World Cups, and chances are, though nothing is certain, that they’ll make it eight in a row.
In addition to Brazil and Mexico, teams that have already earned spots in the 2018 World Cup are: host Russia, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Belgium. Teams that have been eliminated include China, Cameroon, Algeria, Canada, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Venezuela and Bolivia.
In Europe, the traditional powers are expected to get through — Germany, France (a 4-0 winner over the Netherlands), England, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Others in good position to advance are Sweden, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Wales, Poland, Croatia and Iceland.
The winners of all nine European groups advance. Eight of the nine runners-up then compete for four additional spots.
As for Africa, the field is still wide open.
It’s hard to believe the 2018 qualifying rounds are in the final stretch. Seems like it was just yesterday that Germany was celebrating in Rio while Brazilian fans were weeping after their humiliating semifinal loss. But Brazilians are happy now, playing well, with star Neymar the talk of the soccer world following his $250 million transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain.
Will Brazil win the Cup in Russia? Will Germany repeat? Will Argentina even be there? The draw is Dec. 1. Let the speculation begin.