It is difficult to work out why Argentina have struggled so much in this campaign when you take a look at their squad, which is jam-packed full of talent – particularly in attacking areas. Yet despite that, the two-time world champions head into their penultimate qualifier having taken just 16 points from a possible 48 and having failed to win 10 of their 16 matches up to now. They are already onto their third manager of the process, with Jorge Sampaoli – who won the Copa America with Chile in 2015 – replacing Edgardo Bauza at the helm earlier this year, but that coaching change has not yet had the desired effect: Argentina did win two friendlies under their new boss, but subsequently drew 0-0 with Uruguay and 1-1 with Venezuela to remain outside the automatic qualification spots in South America.
The good news for Argentina is that, despite everything, their fate remains in their own hands: beat Peru on Thursday and Ecuador next Tuesday and they will have booked their place in Russia. La Albiceleste have struggled in the altitude of Quito in the past, though, so victory in the latter fixture cannot be guaranteed; in terms of this week’s encounter, meanwhile, Argentina should take nothing for granted against an in-form Peruvian outfit. Although there have long been concerns about the side’s defensive solidity, it is goal-scoring rather than goal-conceding that has been Argentina’s primary problem in the current campaign: remarkably, only second-bottom Bolivia have netted less often than a country able to call upon the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Mauro Icardi, Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala.
Peru appeared to be out of the running early on, with their first six outings yielding just a single victory. A 4-1 win in Paraguay in November 2016 proved to be the turning points; although Ricardo Gareca’s men lost their next game to Brazil, they then went on to take points from the next 12 available. That upturn in form has increased optimism around the camp and led many to predict a first World Cup appearance for Los Incas since 1982, when they were eliminated at the group stage after failing to win a game.
Peru will have to make do without a number of key players, with Jefferson Farfan an injury doubt and Andre Carillo, Paolo Hurtado, Cristian Cueva and Cristian Ramos all suspended. Those losses are a major blow to a nation that is not particularly blessed with strength in depth, although the visitors will still look to make themselves difficult to beat and provide a threat on the counter-attack. Gareca favours a 4-2-3-2 formation but has used a 4-1-4-1 in the past and may opt for the latter in a bid to add another layer of security to his side.
Sampaoli is an advocate of front-foot, high-tempo football, so Argentina will take the initiative and look to play the game in Peru’s half of the field in Buenos Aires on Thursday. The 3-4-2-1 formation that was used against Uruguay and Venezuela will probably be retained, with Dario Benedetto supposedly set to get the nod to the lead the line ahead of Icardi, and Messi and Dybala providing support as inside-forwards. Javier Mascherano is likely to continue as a defender rather than a midfielder, with Nicolas Otamendi and Federico Fazio completing the three-man backline.
Argentina have had their problems in recent months, but they should have enough quality to get the job done here; Peru’s absences will no doubt harm their chances of picking up a positive result, while home advantage could also be key. A home win to nil is one option worth considering, while Benedetto could be a good value choice to find the back of the net anytime.