High-flying Argentina, humiliated 6-1 the last time they played Bolivia in La Paz, have the confidence to avoid crashing badly again in the thin air in today’s World Cup qualifier, but Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella is taking no chances, mindful of predecessor Diego Maradona’s team and their shock demolition in the equivalent qualifier in 2009.
Argentina brilliantly dismantled a much-improved Venezuela 3-0 on Friday at the Monumental to stay firmly in charge of the South American group and Sabella has since sat at his drawing board looking at alternative high-altitude tactics.
He has not gone quite so far as Enrique Omar Sivori, the former European Footballer of the Year who sent a young, second-string squad known as “the ghost team” to prepare for a month in the northwestern Andean province of Jujuy in 1973.
The team, which included a teenage Mario Kempes making his Argentina debut, went through bad times, but beat Bolivia 1-0 to help Sivori’s main squad book a place in the 1974 World Cup in then-West Germany.
“The AFA forgot about us and we had a really bad time,” Kempes said in Matador, a biography. “We were in a dead-end hotel with nothing to eat. Two warmups had been arranged, but we ended up playing six or seven to raise money so we could buy stuff at the supermarket for one of us to cook a meal. I came back [home] weighing seven or eight kilos less.”
Scorer Oscar Fornari had slightly better memories of the match.
“It was the most important goal of my life ... They called us the ghost national team and even took our picture wearing sheets,” Fornari said.
Sabella, whose squad enjoy a harmony absent from the Argentina teams of the early 1970s, appears to be plotting a different strategy for the match at the Hernando Siles Stadium, which stands 4,000m above sea level and leaves unaccustomed players gasping for air long before 90 minutes are up.
In a practice session, he lined up a team with four backs, five midfielders and one man up front, recalling perhaps that two breakaway Hernan Crespo goals helped Argentina draw 3-3 there in 2001.
Whoever he picks as striker, it will not be the group’s leading scorer Gonzalo Higuain, who took his tally to nine with a brace against Venezuela, but was booked and will miss the match through suspension.
Argentina will be looking to end a run of three matches without a win against Bolivia, having been held 1-1 twice at home in 2011, in a World Cup qualifier and a Copa America group match.
Bolivia, who welcome back central defender Ronald Raldes from suspension after a 5-0 pasting by Colombia on the Caribbean coast on Friday, will be looking for the form that helped them beat Uruguay 4-1 in La Paz in October last year.
Argentina top the nine-nation group with 23 points from 10 matches, followed by Colombia on 19 and Ecuador 17, though both have a game in hand.
Colombia visit fifth-placed Venezuela in what should be a fascinating match in Puerto Ordaz.
The visitors, spearheaded by Radamel Falcao, play fluent, attacking soccer, exploiting the wings with fast fullbacks, while Venezuela are a well-drilled, compact outfit who are hard to break down.
Ecuador are at home to bottom team Paraguay and are favored to extend their perfect home record with a sixth win at the Atahualpa in Quito, another high-altitude stronghold feared by visiting teams.
Chile, like Paraguay, are in danger of failing to reach the finals in Brazil next year and a second successive World Cup after having fallen to a fourth consecutive defeat away to Peru on Friday.
Their new Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli will be looking to end the rot in Santiago against a fourth-placed Uruguay side held 1-1 at home by Paraguay and deprived through suspension of defender Maxi Pereira and holding midfielder Diego Perez.
The top four teams at the end of the qualifiers will go to Brazil. The fifth-placed team, at present Venezuela, will enter a playoff against an Asian qualifier for another berth.