FIFA World Cup 2018 Qualifiers: Bolivia beat Messi-less Argentina 2-0

LA PAZ – Argentina lost 2-0 to Bolivia in a World Cup qualifier played just hours after FIFA imposed a four-match ban on Argentine captain Lionel Messi on Tuesday.

Bolivia, as Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza predicted, deployed a high press throughout the first half in hopes of exhausting a visiting squad unused to the altitude of 3,600 meters (11,800 feet).

While Argentina could prepare for the physical challenges of playing in La Paz, the squad was blindsided by FIFA’s announcement early Tuesday that Messi was suspended for four matches.

Soccer’s world governing body sanctioned the FC Barcelona superstar “for having directed insulting words at an assistant referee” during last Thursday’s 1-0 Argentine victory over Chile.

With Juan Carlos “Conejo” Arce and Marcelo Martins Moreno leading the charge, the hosts were relentless on the attack for the first 45 minutes, though the first threats on goal came from Argentina’s Angel Di Maria, who tested Bolivian goalkeeper Lampe in the 25th and 28th minutes.

But Arce broke through for Bolivia at the half-hour mark to put the home side up 1-0.

Argentina showed more ambition in the second half, only to concede again in the 52nd minute, when a cross from Flores found Martins unmarked in front of Albiceleste keeper Romero.

Ahead 2-0 at home, the Bolivians were content to spend the balance of the match defending.

Argentina, with 22 points, came into the contest with Bolivia in third place in the South American qualifiers, but have dropped to fourth following Colombia’s 2-0 win Tuesday over Ecuador.

First place belongs to Brazil, who have 30 points, followed at 23 by Uruguay, who are in action late Tuesday against Peru.

Chile’s stunning victory against Venezuela lifted the Copa America champions into the automatic qualifying standings with 23 points from 14 games.

Chile’s fourth consecutive qualifying win at home helped them climb up to fourth in the standings after 14 rounds, leapfrogging Argentina, as Venezuela remain at the foot of the table.

The top four finishers in South America automatically qualify for next year’s finals in Russia.