CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying: Bolivia 1 Argentina 1
By Football News
Argentina came from behind to secure a 1-1 draw with Bolivia in their South American World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.
Marcelo Martins opened the scoring in La Paz 25 minutes in, but Argentina levelled just before half-time thanks to Ever Banega.
Returning to the site of one of their worst results in history, a 6-1 thumping in 2009, 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 Bolivia'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.
Bolivia made all the early running, and they 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 Martins who powered a header past Sergio Romero in the Argentine goal.
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.
Angel 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-bursting 40-metre run in the La Paz altitude, and his shot from outside the area flew just wide of Sergio Galarza's left post.
Just when Argentina appeared certain to start the second half trailing, another clinical counter finally bore fruit.
Javier Mascherano kick-started the break with a fine lofted pass, and Lionel Messi held on to the ball just long enough to find the overlapping Rodriguez.
He appeared to have stumbled on the uneven pitch, but composed himself to flight the ball to the edge of the area where Banega managed to get 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 visitors 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 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.
The draw leaves Argentina five points clear of Colombia in the CONMEBOL standings, although the Colombians can close that gap when they visit Venezuela later on Tuesday, while Bolivia are second from the bottom on nine points.