In a little more than a week, we'll likely know if Argentina is a contender for the 2010 World Cup or a pretender, and a serious risk to miss out on South Africa altogether. Diego Maradona's squad has little option but to claim all three points on Sept. 5 when it takes on archrival Brazil in a decisive South American qualifier.
The highly anticipated showdown between South America's two biggest rivals has been branded as the Match of the Year by Brazilians and Argentines alike. Two-time world champion Argentina has struggled a great deal since Maradona was appointed head coach last October -- it has lost two of its last three qualifiers by a combined score of 8-1. Based on current form, the Argentines just don't seem good enough to overcome Dunga's highly organized, world No. 1-ranked squad.
Argentina is fully aware that anything less than a victory against the Brazilians would seriously dent its World Cup chances. Maradona and his squad won't dare to think what a home loss could mean.
For one, Argentina would find itself eight points behind its archrivals in the CONMEBOL standings and in danger of falling out of an automatic berth for South Africa (the top four teams qualify, while the fifth-place team gets a home-and-away playoff with the fourth-place team from CONCACAF). Argentina hasn't missed a World Cup since 1970, and failing to qualify would be catastrophic.
What's almost even worse, however, is that if Brazil does win and results from the other matches go its way, the Seleção will be celebrating its record 19th World Cup appearance on Argentine soil. That surely would rank among the most humiliating events ever seen in Argentine soccer history. La Albiceleste can't afford to allow that to happen, especially on the backs of its worst-ever loss: a devastating 6-1 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz in April, Maradona's second official game in charge.
Having learned its lesson from that game, Argentina must be on top of its game against Brazil. The team may be far from its best, but still has an incredibly talented group of players that can beat anybody on any given day. With Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi reigning supreme, Argentina boasts the most exciting individual to emerge from the country since Maradona.
Combining the two -- Maradona and Messi -- should conjure up images of a partnership made in heaven. Things haven't gone exactly to plan, however, as Maradona has struggled to demonstrate his vast knowledge of the game from the dugout, and Messi has failed to produce anything near to his incredible Barcelona form on the field.
Nevertheless, Maradona is convinced that he and his troops finally will get it right in the crunch match against Brazil after encouraging declarations made by the coach earlier this week.
"We will win because we have the best players," he told Argentine radio network Radio Palermo. "Beating them, we will show all of the goodness we have as a group. The boys are razor-sharp ready."
Having fought out a frustrating scoreless draw when the sides met in Belo Horizonte in the first round of the World Cup qualifiers last year, Argentina will be hoping to make the most of its home-field advantage, something it has failed to do in the past.
The fact that the game will be staged in Rosario rather than in Buenos Aires should help its cause. Not only did Maradona publicly criticize the state of Estadio Monumental (which has since had a paint job), he also claimed his troops asked to play at another venue because they don't receive adequate support from fans at River Plate's home ground.
Shifting the Brazil game to the Gigante de Arroyito stadium, which was one of six venues for the 1978 World Cup held in Argentina, should provide Argentina with undivided support.
But support alone won't be enough to pull the squad through. Argentina knows it faces one of its most important matches in years, and will need to fire on all cylinders in order to come out on top. With only six wins in 14 qualifiers, La Albiceleste isn't in an ideal position, but if it plays its cards right, it could overwhelm the Confederations Cup champs.
"I don't think one is any better than the other, we are both very even, head-to-head," insisted Maradona in an interview with FIFA.com. "We have to take into account that we both supply lots of players to the world of football."
Although there's never a winning recipe in these kinds of matches, Argentina's best bet is to pressure Brazil throughout the entire 90 minutes. With the likes of Messi, Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tévez and Lisandro López up front, there's no question where Argentina's strength is. True, the team is missing a capable creative midfielder to provide service for the attackers (retired JuanRomán Riquelme would be nice in this situation), but even without an anchor man, Argentina has a good enough midfield to unsettle the Brazilians.
If Maradona sticks to his word, Argentina will throw the cliché kitchen sink at Brazil. But if that doesn't translate into first-half goals, it could spell trouble. As Brazil proved in a 4-0 romp of Uruguay in Montevideo in June, it's more than capable of playing on the counterattack. With speedy players like Kaká and Robinho darting forward from the midfield, Argentina will need to be extremely cautious at all times.
A further incentive for Argentina to inflict a defeat upon its rival is the fact that it hasn't claimed a victory in the derby in its last four attempts, including three heavy losses, the last of which in the '07 Copa América final. That aside, Argentina is essentially playing for its life. If Maradona & Co. don't bring their A games, next summer could be a painfully empty one for Argentine soccer fans.