Without banned Messi, Argentina loses World Cup qualifier at Bolivia
SAO PAULO (AP) – Hours after Lionel Messi was suspended by FIFA for four World Cup qualifiers, 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 remained on 22 points in South American qualifying with four matches to play, and coach Edgardo Bauza is under pressure to step aside with the team likely dropping to the fifth spot.
South America has four direct spots at the World Cup, and the fifth-ranked team goes into an intercontinental playoff against the Oceania qualifying winner for another spot at Russia next year.
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 its last match for qualifiers in October against Ecuador.
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.
Then, 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. 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.''
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.