RIO DE JANEIRO: Argentina and Lionel Messi are on the verge of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1970, stumbling to a 0-0 draw against Peru before a capacity crowd at Boca Juniors' Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires.
Only one round of qualifying remains in South America, and Argentina is off the pace for direct qualification.
Argentina, the runner-up to Germany three years ago in Brazil, plays on Tuesday against Ecuador in the thin air of Quito in the Andes. The Argentines are in sixth place, with the top four teams advancing automatically to Russia 2018. The fifth-place team can advance by winning an intercontinental playoff against Oceania champion New Zealand.
Brazil has already qualified and drew 0-0 against Bolivia on Thursday. Brazil has 38 points, followed by Uruguay (28), Chile (26), Colombia (26), Peru (25), Argentina (25) and Paraguay (24). Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia are eliminated.
It's too close to call. But Uruguay is expected to get through the final round on Tuesday. After that, four teams are chasing the two automatic spots.
That will leave two teams trying to reach the playoff, which looms as Argentina's most probable route. The Argentine squad must win at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) in Quito and get some help.
In other results Thursday: Paraguay beat Colombia 2-1, Chile beat Ecuador 2-1 and Uruguay was held to a 0-0 draw at Venezuela.
The last matches next Tuesday feature: Uruguay vs. Bolivia, Peru vs. Colombia, Ecuador vs. Argentina, Brazil vs. Chile and Paraguay vs. Venezuela.
It's almost unthinkable. No Messi. No Argentina in Russia. But it could happen.
Several generations of Argentines have no idea what it's like to be out of the World Cup. And that includes Messi, who will turn 31 when the Cup in being played next year in Russia.
This is likely his last chance to win a World Cup for Argentina. So far he has failed to deliver any major trophy for his country of birth.
Argentina had all the possession. Messi had a handful of good chances and hit the post in the first minute of the second half. In a fair world, Argentina would have won by several goals. Dario Benedetto had several chances, too.
In three qualifying matches under new coach Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina has scored just one goal.
Sampaoli tried to sound upbeat.
"I remain confident we'll be in the World Cup," he said. "It would really be unfair if a group that put it all out there — like they did — does not advance.
"Throughout the game we had a marked advantage again them, but we could not break through."
Peru's Argentina-born coach Ricardo Garcea was happier.
"Getting a result in Argentina is really difficult," he said. "But qualifying now depends only on us, which is important."
Brazil has already qualified for the World Cup and appeared relaxed in a 0-0 draw against Bolivia despite playing at 3,650 meters (11,900 feet) in the Andes. Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe was the player of the match with three keys saves against Brazil star Neymar. Tite is undefeated in 11 qualifying matches since taking over as Brazil coach, including nine wins.
Brazil wraps up qualifying on Tuesday in Sao Paulo against Chile. Bolivia, already out of contention for the World Cup, finishes at Uruguay.
Colombia led 1-0 against Paraguay in the 79th minutes after a goal by Radamel Falcao. That result would have put Colombia in Russia.
But Paraguay rallied with two late goals by Antonio Sanabria and Oscar Cardozo to a 2-1 victory.
The outcome means Paraguay stays in contention and Colombia will also have to wait.
URUGUAY NEARLY THERE
Uruguay's 0-0 draw at Venezuela makes qualification almost a formality. Uruguay has a huge goal difference of plus-10 and has scored 28 goals — only Brazil has scored more.
Those are the first two tiebreakers if teams tie on points.
Alexis Sanchez scored late in Chile's 2-1 victory over Ecuador. Eduardo Vargas gave Chile a 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute, but Romario Ibarra equalized in the 84th — setting the stage for Sanchez's winner.