Lionel Messi's Argentina In Danger Of Missing Russia Tournament

South America consistently produces the most competitive World Cup qualification campaign on the planet, with more strength in depth and fewer easy games than anywhere else.

Brazil flirted with disaster before securing their place in the 2002 World Cup - which, of course, they won. Argentina had a bad time in the 2010 qualifiers but managed to grab the last automatic slot. Uruguay, who had to be content with the play-off position, went on to come fourth in the tournament after finishing fifth in the South American group.

But even bearing all that in mind, Argentina have dug themselves into a hole this time. They go into the final round down in sixth, outside even the play-off spot following a goalless draw against Peru.

On Wednesday they are away to Ecuador at the dreaded altitude of Quito, conditions they despise. A win will guarantee a play-off place and might even send them automatically to Russia, but a draw will leave them reliant on other results and a defeat will eliminate them.

There is, then, a real danger that Argentina, Lionel Messi and all, will be missing from the 2018 World Cup.

How did they get themselves into this mess?

The warning lights have been flashing for a while. This is a region where under-20 football is especially important, as Argentina highlighted between 1995 and 2007.

Over that period they won the world title at the level on five separate occasions. More significantly, they produced a conveyor belt of talent for the senior side - indeed, it was at under-20 level that they secured the international future of Messi, who was being courted by Spain.

But when they won Olympic gold in 2008, victorious coach Sergio Batista issued a warning. The standard of youth development work in the country, he said, was in sharp decline. He has been proved correct.

Subsequent Argentina Under-20 sides have been poor, and this has filtered through to the senior team, especially in certain positions. Who was the last genuinely great Argentine goalkeeper, or full-back, or centre-back?

The answer to the last question is probably Roberto Ayala, who retired from international football in 2007. It is almost certainly not a coincidence that since then Argentina have seldom looked like a solid, coherent team.

They have had great days, and managed to reach three finals in three years: the World Cup in 2014, the Copa America the following year and the extra, Centenary Copa in 2016 - all of them lost. But they have become increasingly dependent on flashes of individual brilliance, mainly, of course, from Messi.

In this campaign the dependence on the 30-year-old Barcelona forward has become overwhelming. Of the 17 rounds, he has missed eight - in which Argentina managed just seven points.

He announced his retirement from international football immediately after that third final defeat in July last year, but quickly had a rethink. It is just as well. The three subsequent wins Argentina have enjoyed were almost exclusively down to him. It would hardly be surprising if there are times when he regrets his decision not to retire.