A World Cup without Lionel Messi seems inconceivable A World Cup without Lionel Messi seems inconceivable but Argentina face huge battle against Ecuador, high altitude and a boggy pitch if they are to join party in Russia. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Argentina will hold its breath in a last-ditch attempt to qualify for the World Cup, knowing failure would deprive Lionel Messi his place on the big stage in Russia. It seems inconceivable that one of the great powers of world football will not be among the 32 nations competing in the World Cup next summer. After all, Argentina have been at every finals since 1970 and twice been winners since then – a record matched only by Brazil and Germany. But the facts are these. Only the top four countries in South America qualify automatically for the finals with fifth place facing a two-legged play-off against New Zealand. Argentina currently sit sixth having been held by Peru in their last match. Defeat in Ecuador would confirm their exit, and the 9,000-feet altitude in Quito means it wont just be excitement that leaves everyone gasping. Argentina havent won in Ecuador for 16 years – and have only won once there at altitude (more than 8,200 ft above sea level). This time, however, a draw may be enough to force a play-off spot depending on the results of Brazil v Chile, Peru v Colombia and Paraguay v Venezuela. To add to the drama, pitch conditions at the Estadio Atahualpa are notoriously affected by heavy rain. An earlier qualifier against Bolivia was played with large areas of the pitch under water and raised concerns from players union Fifpro. Pictures of the ground taken within 24 hours before kick-off against Argentina show great puddles on the surface, particularly outside one penalty area. If you are seeking an explanation as to why Argentina are in this position, the lopsided nature of their team provides it. Argentina have the best attacking options in world football; Messi, Juventus star Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero are all worthy of going to the World Cup. Dybala, who has scored 12 times for his club this season, will surely start in Quito having been astonishingly left out by Jorge Sampaoli for the goalless draw against Peru on Friday. Strangely, all that talent has combined to score only 16 goals in the other 17 games in the home-and-away format that places all 10 South American nations in a single league. Perhaps its over-compensation for a defence lacking great names of the past like Daniel Passarella, Javier Zanetti and Roberto Ayala. Sergio Romero is only second-choice at Manchester United but the No 1 for his country. In front of him, Manchester Citys Nicolas Otamendi is the main man with Marcos Rojo badly missed through injury. Not surprisingly, failure to qualify will lead to the mother of all inquests in a nation as obsessed with football as Argentina. Not surprisingly, Diego Maradona has already entered the debate, criticising the appointment of ex-Chile boss Sampaoli midway through the campaign. There is a lot of talk about the need to renovate the national team and I dont think Sampaoli has the feeling or the touch with the players to do so, he said. Like other managers, Sampaoli has found it hard to find the right balance to accommodate Messis talents. The Barcelona icon, regarded as one of the best players of all time, has been in three finals – including the last World Cup – but never won a major global trophy for Argentina. He and the rest of the squad have imposed a media blackout before the game in Ecuador. Last year, he retired from international football before a hasty u-turn. We need to fix many things in Argentinian football, but I prefer to do this from inside and not criticise from outside, he explained. So far, his approach hasnt worked. Argentinas last three qualifiers against Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru have all ended in draws. The tie before that saw a 2-0 defeat in Bolivia at another high-altitude venue. Sampaolis success with Chile was founded on a high-octane pressing game, something that Argentinian legs are unable to emulate. Injury has caused Messi to miss half the qualifiers and this time they are without Aguero (injured) and Higuain (dropped). One silver lining is that Ecuador have lost their last five qualifiers and will be without their best player and captain, Manchester Uniteds Antonio Valencia, who is suspended. Most fans around the world will want Argentina to win so they can tune into Messi next year. FIFA will also be aware that Argentinas predicament is partly due to them. Earlier in the campaign they awarded rivals Peru and Chile 3-0 victories against Bolivia (for matches theyd failed to win) because the Bolivians had fielded an ineligible substitute. On results only, Argentina would be currently sitting fourth. But sixth is where they are. Their supporters and Messi-lovers everywhere will be taking deep breaths for the final qualifier – just like the players in the thin air of Quito.