Crunch time for Messi and co
Argentina need their stars to step up and rescue their World Cup dream
BRAZIL v ARGENTINA
(Tomorrow, 7.40am, Singtel TV Ch 109 - Eleven)
All of a sudden, what was supposed to be a formality threatens to become a dangerous slog for traditional football giants Argentina.
Other South American nations are flourishing in their World Cup qualifying campaign for Russia 2018, and Argentina are trailing.
It used to be the case that the two big fish, Brazil and Argentina, fought for supremacy on the continent, but now it has become a free-for-all.
The standings show a familiar team at the top in Brazil, but Argentina are struggling in sixth, outside the top four and automatic qualification spot, with the fifth-placed team scheduled for an inter-continental play-off at the end of the qualifiers.
A retrospective Fifa decision to award Chile a 3-0 win over Bolivia for the fielding of an ineligible player saw the reigning Copa America champions leapfrog Argentina into fifth spot.
And it could get worse tomorrow morning (Singapore time), when the Argentinians visit arch rivals Brazil at the Estadio Mineirao.
A loss will plunge the visitors deeper into trouble, with another tough fixture against rising force Colombia at home next Wednesday.
Seven nations are genuinely vying for a place in the top five and with challenges from Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Paraguay, Argentina could face a real prospect of missing out on the party in Russia altogether, if their next two results yield a paltry return.
Argentina's new coach Edgardo Bauza has already voiced his concern as the number of critics grows.
His detractors lament that there is no discernible identity to Argentina's play during his four matches in charge since replacing Gerardo Martino after the Copa America in the United States.
A promising start - a 1-0 home victory over Uruguay - has been followed by a wretched run that saw them pick up just two points out of a possible nine.
In 10 qualifiers, the side have scored just 11 goals, less than half of the 23 which Brazil have mustered.
The 58-year-old former Rosario Central defender and ex-Sao Paulo coach is counting on his big guns to show their mettle.
The team may be falling well below expectations, but he still has an array of world-class players to turn the tables.
The return of the mercurial Lionel Messi from a groin injury, which ruled him out of the side's last three matches, is crucial.
Messi, who scored the only goal of the match against Uruguay in September, arrived in Belo Horizonte this week in the private jet of Barcelona teammate, Brazilian star Neymar.
Long regarded as the best player in the world, the forward has been in top form this season, plundering 16 goals in 14 outings (including two as a substitute) in all competitions for his club.
Not for the first time, he finds himself carrying the hopes of the side as they attempt to get back on track.
Argentina have won just once in the seven qualifiers Messi has missed in total.
This will almost certainly be his final shot at the World Cup crown, considering he will be 31 by the time the 2018 World Cup concludes in Russia.
He will have help tomorrow from other stars in his team.
Bauza has confirmed that Messi will be partnered by Gonzalo Higuain up front as they attempt to break down a Brazilian team who by all accounts have recovered from their 2014 World Cup disaster.
Higuain, last season's runaway Serie A top scorer with 36 strikes for Napoli, is still adapting to life at Juventus, although that hasn't stopped him from firing seven goals in 12 league outings to propel them to the top of the league.
Should things fail to work between them, Bauza has the luxury option of throwing Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (eight goals in nine Premiership games) into the fray.
The wealth of talent extends to midfield, where the likes of Barcelona's Javier Mascherano and Paris Saint-Germain's Angel Di Maria have quality and experience to more than hold their own against their Brazilian hosts.
At the back, the Manchester City duo of Pablo Zabaleta and Nicolas Otamendi are good when in the mood.
Argentina's problem is not a lack of quality in their ranks.
In a rapidly changing South American footballing landscape, what is required is for Bauza to get his talented squad to shake off their slumber and rise to the occasion.