BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina flew to Ecuador on Sunday for their most important World Cup qualifier in years, shut off from the press but knowing that a win will keep them in the running for a coveted place at next year’s World Cup.
Lionel Messi’s team, who reached the final three years ago in Brazil, lie in sixth place in the 10-team South American group, out of the qualifying places for Russia.
The top four qualify automatically and the fifth-placed side go into an intercontinental playoff against Oceania winners New Zealand.
Argentina have won only one World Cup qualifier high above sea level in the Ecuadorean capital but three points on Tuesday would guarantee them one of those top five spots, and probably one of the top four, depending on other results.
But with no wins in their last four qualifiers and no Argentine having scored from open play for almost a year, the mood is not optimistic, even against a team that are already out of contention.
Neither coach Jorge Sampaoli nor his players have spoken to the press since the disappointing 0-0 draw with Peru on Thursday and there is an evident tension ahead of their game in Quito.
The squad trained against Argentina’s Under-20 side at their base outside Buenos Aires on Sunday morning before heading to the airport.
The players, who last year organised a boycott of the press, did not give interviews.
And Sampaoli, who became Argentina’s third coach of the campaign when he took over in June, gave no clue about who will lead the line in a game where goals are especially vital or how to bring the best out of Messi.
The former Chile and Sevilla coach has been criticised for chopping and changing strikers and formations but the alterations have brought him no joy.
Argentina have scored just 16 goals in 17 qualifiers, fewer than anyone else bar Bolivia, and only one - an own goal in the 1-1 draw with bottom side Venezuela - in the three qualifiers since Sampaoli took over.
Local media suggested Dario Benedetto will get a second chance up front. The Boca Juniors striker started for the first time against Peru.
Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Rex Gowar