An Argentina side reeling from the shock suspension of captain Lionel Messi crashed to a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia on Tuesday, dealing a fresh blow to their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign.
Goals from Juan Carlos Arce and Marcelo Martins secured a deserved win for Bolivia, who retain a slender hope of qualification for next year’s finals despite remaining second from bottom of the table.
Argentina had been rocked just hours before kick-off after confirmation Messi had been hit with a four-match ban following a ruling from disciplinary chiefs at world governing body FIFA in Zurich.
The Barcelona superstar was stunned after being suspended for four of Argentina’s five remaining World Cup qualification matches after being caught swearing at an official in a game against Chile last week.
Messi’s suspension left Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza forced to make a hasty reshuffle to his starting line-up, bringing in Atletico Madrid’s Angel Correa in attack while leaving Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero on the bench.
But Argentina, clearly struggling in the thin air of La Paz, which is 3,600 metres (11,800 feet) above sea level, were well beaten at the Estadio Hernando Siles.
Bolivia, desperate for three points, tore into Argentina from the opening whistle, spending long periods camped around their opponents area.
Raul Castro created one of the most promising early chances, his low shot on 18 minutes being tipped wide for a corner by diving Manchester United goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Argentina were content to soak up pressure and look for opportunities on the counter-attack.
The best effort fell to stand-in captain Ever Banega, whose curling shot was parried over the bar by Carlos Lampe.
But Argentina visibly began to tire midway through the first half and Bolivia took the lead when Arce cleverly headed home Pablo Escobar’s inviting cross on 31 minutes.
It got worse for Argentina soon afterwards when Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori was stretchered off the field with what looked like a knee injury.
Argentina started the second half sluggishly and were soon 2-0 down when Jorge Flores embarrassed Mateo Musacchio down the left flank before crossing into the area where an unmarked Martins was waiting to bludgeon home.
Argentina, who started the day in third place in the qualifying table, could drop to fifth — outside the automatic qualifying positions — if Colombia and Chile win later Tuesday.