The moment of truth arrives tonight. At 8pm local time (7pm in Argentina; 11pm British Summer Time) Argentina will take to the pitch in the Estadio Centenario, the site of the first ever World Cup final back in 1930. They need a result against their oldest rivals to secure qualification for South Africa 2010. A loss could – depending on the result of Ecuador vs Chile – see them fail to qualify for the first time since Mexico 1970. Read on for the possible outcomes, as well as the Argentine starting lineup.
The biggest change Diego Maradona makes to the side that so thrillingly beat Peru on Saturday night is that Vélez Sársfield centre back Nicolás Otamendi is in at right back – Pablo Zabaleta’s injury having rendered the squad without a right back, remember. Gabriel Heinze is shunted out to left back, possibly in the hope he won’t harm the defence too much if he’s not in the middle of it. Jonás Gutiérrez is moved forward to midfield (having played at full back against Peru) to replace Enzo Pérez, and Pablo Aimar is replaced by Juan Sebastián Verón, who’ll be playing central midfield rather than in Aimar’s more advanced role. In a blessing for common sense, Gonzalo Higuaín retains his place up front ahead of Martín Palermo. I am actually surprised.
N. Otamendi —- R. Schiavi —- M. Demichelis —- G. Heinze
J. Gutiérrez —- J. Mascherano (c) —- J.S. Verón —- A. Di María
L. Messi —- G. Higuaín
The only way Argentina can fail to qualify altogether is if Ecuador beat Chile a little earlier in the evening, and then Argentina lose to Uruguay. That would put Uruguay through automatically and Ecuador into the playoff. There’s one unlikely exception: an Ecuador win combined with a draw in Montevideo would put Argentina into the playoff, unless Ecuador’s win was big enough to swing the goal difference in their favour (Argentina’s is +2, Ecuador’s is -3).
If Ecuador don’t win (Uruguay’s goal difference is +9), then the match in the Centenario becomes a straight battle for automatic qualification – a draw or an away win hands it to Argentina, a home win would put Argentina in the playoff and send Uruguay to South Africa.
Of course, there’s one other possibility: a draw in Santiago combined with an Argentina win by nine goals or more would swing the goal difference Ecuador’s way and put them in the playoff at Uruguay’s expense. I wouldn’t bet my house on that outcome, though.