ISLAMABAD: Lionel Messi and Argentina will be fighting for their World Cup lives on Tuesday as the South American heavyweights take on Ecuador aiming to avoid a humiliating failure to qualify for next year’s finals in Russia.
The eyes of the football world will turn to Quito’s Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa to see if the once unthinkable prospect of a World Cup without Messi is to become a stunning reality.
The two-time World Cup winners head into the final round of South American qualifiers in sixth place, outside the top four positions which grant automatic qualification and trailing fifth-placed Peru, who occupy the playoff spot, on goal difference.
Yet with only two points separating third-placed Chile (26 points) with seventh-placed Paraguay (24), any number of permutations are possible.
Argentina can simplify the equation for their nervous fans, however, if they manage to take all three points in Quito on Tuesday.
A victory would guarantee they finish no worse than fifth place, putting them into a two-legged play-off against New Zealand they would be expected to win.
But winning in the thin air of Quito, which is 2,850 metres (9,350 feet) above sea level, may be easier said than done.
The Argentinians have an abysmal record in away games against Ecuador, with their last victory in Quito coming in 2001.
Since then in World Cup qualifying games, they have been beaten twice, in 2005 and 2009, before scraping a 1-1 draw in 2013.