Sixteen years ago to the day, Argentinian football experienced one of its darkest hours when the national side lost 5-0 to Colombia at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. That defeat, their first at home in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, consigned La Albiceleste to a play-off against Australia.
The man who proved their saviour on that occasion was Diego Maradona, and now, over a decade and a half later, El Diez finds himself in a similar situation, albeit on the other side of the touchline. With just three crucial games left in the group, can coach Maradona steer his side to safety and a place in South Africa?
The immediate outlook is somewhat bleak. Fresh from defeat to their fiercest rivals in Rosario, Maradona now takes his beleaguered squad to Paraguay for a meeting with Gerardo Martino's ever-combative side. With only two points separating them from Colombia and Ecuador in fifth and sixth respectively, Argentina's margin for error is decreasing with every game.
"I'm feeling composed. There's no cause for alarm," said a calm but clearly downcast Maradona in the wake of the 3-1 defeat. "It won't be easy to go to Paraguay, but we'll see what solutions we can find for our problems and try and take the three points. Anything can happen in football as today's game showed. We had to beat Brazil and we lost. There's no time for feeling sorry for yourself, though. You have to keep looking forward."
Causes for concern
Though the Paraguayans' form may have dipped a little of late, Argentina have been unimpressive on the road throughout the qualifying competition. Their last away win in the group came on Matchday 2, in October 2007, when Alfio Basile oversaw a 2-0 win in Venezuela. Of the six away matches since, La Albiceleste have lost four and drawn two, letting in 12 goals in scoring only three in the process.
"I'm angry we lost today and that we're in this situation now," said a frustrated Carlos Tevez after the final whistle in Rosario. "I thought we were the better side today but they had three chances and took the lot. We need to keep on working and stay strong. It won't be easy in Paraguay but we'll be going there to fight. We need to win."
The vastly experienced Javier Zanetti was in similarly defiant mood. "There's no time to lose," he said. "We need to change our mindset and start thinking about Paraguay. We didn't play well today and we paid very dearly for our lack of concentration at set-pieces. At this level mistakes like those can cost you games, but we hope to improve in those areas for Wednesday."
Those dead-ball lapses led to Brazil's first two goals, when Luisao and then Luis Fabiano had all the space and time they needed to beat Mariano Andujar. "I'm angry and sad about the result," said the Argentina goalkeeper before attempting to sound a more optimistic note ahead of their midweek engagement in Asuncion.
"A good result in Paraguay will change everything and if we play like we did against Ecuador and at times tonight, we'll be ok. The most important thing is to go out and win, although we passed up a really good chance tonight."
Shouldering the blame
Despite the defeat, Maradona refused to criticise his players, choosing instead to give them his complete backing. "I've got no complaints about my players," he said. "I wasn't happy when Bolivia thrashed us, but I've got nothing to say today. We started better than Brazil and then they go and score with their first two chances. It was all uphill for us after that but let's make one thing clear: the responsibility is all mine."
Jesus Datolo's wonder strike breathed new life into the home side only for Luis Fabiano to pop up four minutes later and halt the hoped-for comeback in its tracks. "We didn't have a chance," continued the Mexico 1986 winner. "We had to take risks and when we fell behind we had to go and look for an equaliser. Brazil have got some great players and they hit us at just the right times. They beat us comfortably."
On the bright side for Maradona, he has no injury or suspension worries and will be able to select from a full squad for the decisive meeting with Paraguay, now a make-or-break game for the Argentinians.
"This isn't over," vowed Andujar. "We need to pick ourselves up quickly because we have another final coming up. It's not over and it's still in our hands."
Argentina have three games to keep it that way.