The ghosts of La Paz were partially laid to rest as Argentina held on for a battling draw against Bolivia, coming back from behind to seal a 1-1 draw that leaves them on the verge of booking a place in the 2014 World Cup.
Marcelo Martins repeated his scoring exploits in that infamous 6-1 destruction in 2009 to put the home side ahead, but Ever Banega responded with a well-taken header to avoid defeat for an uncharacteristically cautious Albiceleste.
Returning to the site of one of their worst results in history, Argentina came out with a cautious outlook, trying to keep hold of possession early and absorb Bolivia’s attacks, while waiting patiently to counter. The long grass of La Paz’s Hernando Siles stadium, however, was not conducive to keeping the ball on the ground, and Alejandro Sabella’s men struggled early on to compete against fearsome pressing from the home team.
The Conmebol leaders had an early scare when Alejandro Bejarano evaded his markers, appearing at the far post. The full-back controlled perfectly a cross-field pass, but could not flick the ball over Sergio Romero with men waiting in the middle and the goalkeeper came to the rescue of his faltering defence.
At the other end, the Albiceleste demonstrated that if given space, they could be devastating going forward. Brilliant play on the counter from Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria left Rodrigo Palacio clean through with Sergio Galarza, but the Inter man failed to beat the Bolivia No.1, who saved with his feet.
The Verde never stopped attacking their illustrious rivals though, and were rewarded after 25 minutes with the opening goal. Alejandro Chumacero left Clemente Rodriguez standing on the right wing, and a well-placed cross found Marcelo Martins who powered a header past Romero. The ex-Cruzeiro man had given Bolivia the advantage last time the two teams met, and once more Argentina would have to fight back from a goal down against their neighbours to the north.
To their credit, Sabella’s charges raised their game after a timid start. Di Maria was guilty of missing a clear header from close range, but almost redeemed himself with a wonderful individual effort. The Real Madrid man combined well with Gino Peruzzi before setting off on a lung-busting 40-metre run in the La Paz altitude, and his shot from outside the area flew just wide of Galarza’s left post to deny him a great strike.
Just when Argentina appeared certain to start the second half from a losing position, another clinical counter finally bore fruit. Javier Mascherano kick-started the break with a fine lofted pass, and Messi held on to the ball just long enough to find the overlapping Rodriguez. Clemente appeared to have stumbled on the uneven pitch, but recomposed himself to flight the ball to the edge of the area; where Banega got down and connect with a header that somehow crept past Galarza and into the net.
Stunned by that blow on the stroke of the interval, Bolivia entered the second half determined to restore their superiority on the scoreboard, going close in the opening minutes with a Martins free kick that forced Romero into a save. Argentina also threatened; a neat link-up between Di Maria and Banega ended with the former prompting a flying save from Galarza, before Messi hit the side netting with the rebound from wide.
The match lost some of its frenetic pace as the half wore on, but at 1-1 it remained within reach for both sides. Messi went within inches of putting his team ahead with a brilliant free kick disguised as a cross, and it took more acrobatics from Galarza to push the effort away and save his team. Bolivia, meanwhile, continued to push the Albiceleste deep into their own half, but appeared to lose some of the incisiveness that made them so deadly in the first 45 minutes and rarely threatened to go back in front.
With just over five minutes left, Messi looked certain to hit his first against Bolivia and seal three points, after breaking through with no-one to beat but Galarza. The away fans were already celebrating, but the Barcelona forward’s usually-deadly aim failed him and he was foiled by the keeper, sealing a share of the spoils that nevertheless left Argentina content in La Paz.
The draw leaves both sides in the positions they occupied before kick-off, Argentina extending their lead at the top over Colombia to five points albeit having played two more games. Bolivia, meanwhile, stay second from bottom with just nine points from their 11 qualifying clashes.