Argentina holds its breath for World Cup showdown

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Buenos Aires (AFP) - An anxious nation held its collective breath on Tuesday as Lionel Messi's Argentina prepared for a do-or-die World Cup qualifier in the thin air of high-altitude Ecuadorian capital Quito.

"It's going to be a very tight game, I'm counting on a 1-0 win for Argentina," said 31-year-old engineer Juan Manuel Santamaria, as he settled in to watch the game with a friend.

"Acuna to score. The only one I have any confidence in apart from Messi," he said.

Nobody here, or anywhere else, wants to contemplate the unthinkable but very real prospect of Argentina losing.

That would mean next year's World Cup in Russia will go ahead without Messi, arguably the world's greatest player.

A backs-to-the-wall victory in Quito, where they haven't won since 2001, would mean a place in the play-offs next month against New Zealand. If other results go their way, it could mean qualification outright.

But that seems a little too fanciful to most Argentines, exasperated by a series of underwhelming performances by the national side.

"It's complicated, I want the team to be at the World Cup in Russia, but only a miracle can save them. I'm going to pray for them," said Maria Cordoba, a 64-year-old optician.

- Music yields to Messi -

Even the great Irish rockers U2 yielded to the pressure and agreed to delay their concert to allow fans to watch the match.

The band, playing Buenos Aires as part of their "Joshua Tree" tour, agreed to push back their set by almost two hours to 10:20 pm (0120 GMT).

Music will yield to Messi when fans will take an unusual break after the warm-up acts -- local band Joystick and Noel Gallagher -- to turn their eyes and their hopes to the big screens around the La Plata stadium where the match will be broadcast on giant screens.

U2 will have to cool their heels until it's all over.

"Can you imagine what the show's going to be like if Argentina wins?" producer Daniel Grinbank told the daily La Nacion.

"And if we lose, at least we can get rid of the bitterness with a great show. You can't go wrong."

"With passion, we will win, but I'm very tense," admitted Lucia Torres, 27, a Buenos Aires city hall worker distributing flyers ahead of elections later this month.

An optimistic football commentator on Buenos Aires' Radio 100 warmed up on air with some childlike imagining of the winning goal, South American-style.

"We're in the 89th minute, still 0-0, Romero clears to Otamendi, who gives it to Mascherano, who sends Di Maria away, he crosses to Messi.....Goooooooooooooooooooooal."

Psychologist Alberto Alonso, 61, has a theory about Argentina's problems scoring goals which has left them in fifth place in the South American qualifying table.

"At Barcelona, the best player after Messi is (Andres) Iniesta, and Messi feeds off his majestic passes. In the Argentine team, he's surrounded by a group of friends.

"I don't think Argentina will qualify. They are in a defeatist mode. You would say they have stage fright."

Alejandro Insaurralde, a 44-year-old electrician, blames it all on Messi. "Messi shouldn't play, he doesn't have the heart. Batistuta, Simeone, and Diego (Maradona) they had heart."