So it all comes down to Tuesday night in Quito, at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. Argentina need to beat Ecuador, otherwise they won't be going to the 2018 World Cup. (A draw might suffice too, but that would require three other results to go their way, and it's not something you want to count on.)
You can blame 101 different factors for why they're in this situation. They've had three different coaches and used 38 different players, suggesting a lack of clear thinking. They've been without Lionel Messi for eight games during which they collected just seven points, as opposed to 18 in the nine matches he played. South American qualifying is a legitimately tough affair -- with six nations in the top 16 of the FIFA rankings -- and margins are slim. Plus, in their past two matches, they ran into two goalkeepers (teenage sensation Wuilker Farinez of Venezuela and Peru's Pedro Gallese) who stood on their heads and pulled off a gaggle of stunning saves.
For all their woes, they could just as easily have beaten Peru and Venezuela, and if they had, they'd be second right now, behind only Brazil, and we wouldn't be having this conversation.
It's important not to lose sight of this fact, especially when considering Jorge Sampaoli, the man who was called over from Sevilla this summer to steer them to Russia. Sampaoli was never given a real shot in his native country, emigrated to various lower-profile South American countries (Peru, Ecuador and Chile) to pursue his dream and eventually made history at Universidad de Chile and with the Chilean national team, winning the Copa America. He came back to Argentina with a point to prove and quickly found himself embroiled in the national psychodrama.
Sampaoli's brand of football (pressing all over the field, interchangeable positions) requires work -- hours of it -- on the training pitch. He's the opposite of a quick-fix type of guy. His football needs to be learned, metabolized and understood. Knowing he'd have no time to do this, he set up Argentina far more conventionally, hoping there would be enough there for the team to respond. They did, to some degree, in terms of performances. They did not in terms of results.
Should the unthinkable happen and they come up short in Ecuador, the worst thing Argentina could do is make yet another change. Folks will want a scapegoat, fine. But it's not him. After all, they haven't seen the real Sampaoli. On the flip side, if they do make it, he will have time to show what he can do, including a three-week pre-World Cup training camp. Then, and only then, will we see the genuine article. Then, and only then, can we judge him as a manager.
Credit Deschamps for France's vital win
It could have gotten hairy for Didier Deschamps. Really hairy.
Since World War II, France had played eight times away to Bulgaria, losing seven and drawing once. Bulgaria had taken 12 of 12 possible points in the group. Oh, and then there was the small matter of this, when David Ginola failed to keep the ball in the dying moments of a qualifier, Emil Kostadinov scored at the other end, and France were condemned to watching USA 1994 on television.
These past performances shouldn't really weigh on the present, but inevitably they do. And when your psyche has already been rattled by things like that Twilight Zone home draw against Luxembourg, you're bound to be vulnerable.
Credit Deschamps here. He opted for a 4-3-3 formation, dropped Olivier Giroud for Alexandre Lacazette and gave Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe licence to roam rather than forcing them to operate as traditional wingers. Blaise Matuidi bagged the only goal and while Les Bleus are not out of the woods yet -- they need to beat Belarus at home to be mathematically sure of first place -- it's a giant step towards "mission accomplished."
Why are England experimenting now?
With England comfortably qualified, Gareth Southgate sought to change things around in his final group game Sunday, and that was to be expected. The likes of Kieran Trippier, Aaron Cresswell, Harry Winks and Harry Maguire started, and it's a full competitive cap under their belts, which matters. What was curious was Southgate's decision to switch to a 3-4-3 after playing most of qualifying in a 4-2-3-1 and his belief that the former is a better option against better teams at the tournament level.
I'm all for trying out different things, and sure, a number of big Premier League sides have gone with a back three of late, from Chelsea to Arsenal to Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur on occasion.
"It gives us more stability in transition, and the passing angles [are better]," Southgate said.
Maybe so, but there's also a question of personnel. A back three requires depth at center-back. Even if you count Eric Dier as a central defender, are there really enough high-quality options there that you want to shoe-horn another guy into the mix? Dier and John Stones? Sure. But Gary Cahill may not be a regular for Chelsea come the end of the season. The same goes for Chris Smalling at Man United, while Phil Jones has a horrendous injury record. That leaves Maguire, Michael Keane and, going forward, maybe Ben Gibson.
Not to mention the fact that while many English sides play a back three, only Cahill's team plays one every week. And that's before we get into the wing-back issue.
Sympathy for Dick Advocaat
Sometimes it must really feel as if fate is conspiring against you.
Take Dick Advocaat: before Saturday, his Dutch team were chasing France and Sweden in Group A and despite a roller-coaster qualifying campaign, he still felt moderately bullish for a playoff place. After all, Sweden traveled to Amsterdam for the final group game, and with the Dutch three points back, they would control their destiny.
If both countries won their games Saturday -- Advocaat's men away to Belarus and the Swedes at home to Luxembourg -- it would be merely a question of goal difference. And ahead of the Saturday games Sweden had a six-goal edge in that department -- nothing that a 3-0 Dutch win on Tuesday couldn't cure.
That's when Advocaat was asked in the prematch press conference about the possibility of a big Swedish win over Luxembourg (say, 8-0) and how it might affect the group.
"They won't win 8-0; what a stupid question that is," he said.
"They won't win 8-0, what a stupid question that is. 8-0? Well, no, I don't believe that." - Dick Advocaat. pic.twitter.com/9JWHWoDQ9M— 🇸🇪 (@SwedeStats) October 7, 2017
Famous last words, eh? Sweden did win 8-0 while the Dutch won their game 3-1. That meant Sweden's goal difference was now a massive 12 goals greater than the Oranje and that the Dutch will need to not just win, but win by at least seven goals.
It's hard not have a teeny, tiny bit of sympathy for Advocaat.
Egypt's heartwarming World Cup return
By the time it rolls around, it will have been 28 years, which is longer than most of these players have been alive. That's how long it has been since Egypt last qualified for a World Cup, and that's why we witnessed this reaction to Mohamed Salah's penalty deep in injury time.
What made the whole wait more emotional -- and unusual -- is that Egypt have been a continental powerhouse in that time period, winning the Africa Cup of Nations on four different occasions, yet somehow coming up short in World Qualifying, often falling at the last hurdle, often in dramatic circumstances. It's one thing for a minnow to live a fairy-tale dream and make it to the big show; it's quite another when you've endured nearly three decades of underachievement.
This time, it was different and somehow fitting that it was Hector Cuper who led them to the promised land. Sixteen years ago, he was one of the hottest managerial commodities in the game, capable of leading Valencia to consecutive Champions League finals. He made the big leap to Inter Milan, a side with the likes of Christian Vieri and Ronaldo, Clarence Seedorf and Javier Zanetti, and from there, his career took a downward spiral.
Now, at 61, he gets another shot at the big stage late in life -- much like his goalkeeper, Essam El Hadary, who turns 45 in January and should comfortably become the oldest player ever to appear in a World Cup game next summer.