South American World Cup qualifying reaches a dramatic conclusion tonight with Lionel Messi’s Argentina 90 minutes from missing out.

“A World Cup without Argentina and Messi would be a catastrophe,” warned Mario Kempes, the star of the team that lifted the trophy in 1978. It is also a very real possibility.

They join Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Colombia in the hunt for two automatic slots and a play-off against New Zealand. After 17 rounds, only Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador are out.

Only Brazil have secured qualification, though Uruguay are all but there ahead of the final round of matches, which all kick off at 12.30am UK time.

Two-time world champions Argentina must now climb 2,800 metres above sea level to battle Ecuador in Quito. And it could have been even worse: as Argentina were held goalless by Peru in Buenos Aires on Thursday, Colombia were three minutes from qualifying with a win that would have left Argentina relying on others, only for Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina’s two late errors handing victory to Paraguay.

Argentina will secure at least a play-off with victory, may progress with a draw, and could even grab a play-off in defeat. There is every chance of the latter, given their struggles at altitude – something Ecuador are geared to exploit.

“I selected my squad thinking about this game,” said Ecuador’s Argentinian coach Jorge Celico. “We have players who respond well to the conditions.” Argentina don’t.

In 2007, Diego Maradona joined Bolivian president Evo Morales for a kickabout to protest a Fifa ban on matches above 2,500 metres. Their campaign was successful and the ban was lifted in time for Maradona’s Argentina to be hammered 6-1 in La Paz.

While not as sapping as the 3,800-metre journey up to the Bolivian capital – conditions Brazil’s Neymar last week labelled “inhumane” – Argentina have won just once in six competitive matches in Quito, dating back to 1983. Their lone victory arrived in 2001 as Marcelo Bielsa’s side eased to the finals with a record 43 points from qualifying.

“The ball doesn’t even bend up there,” moaned coach Daniel Passarella in 1996 after a 2-0 defeat. Endless goalkeepers have been flummoxed by the way the ball sails through the rarefied air.

Argentina have adopted the now ubiquitous practice of arriving as close to kick-off as possible, hoping to get through some of the game before the lack of oxygen is felt.

The is some good news for them: Celico is a caretaker coach with an experimental Ecuador side desperate to go out on a high. After three frustrating draws against teams who defended deep, Argentina face opposition likely to attack and leave space to exploit.

Messi and co need all the help they can get. Over 400 minutes have passed since an Argentine found the net in qualifying. Despite boasting some of the world’s top forwards, they’ve hit the second-fewest goals (16). Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Gonzalo Higuain were all dropped against Peru. “Messi has nobody to play with,” lamented the great Ricardo Bochini.

Messi is the only Argentina international to score in a competitive fixture since November 2016. On Sunday, as his and his colleagues sat for dinner in a Guayaquil hotel, outside the locals chanted: “You’ve let Messi down.”

They’re not the only ones. The road to Russia has been plagued by administrative chaos at the football federation (AFA), resulting in Messi’s brief international retirement last year. And the side are still reeling from three consecutive defeats in major finals between 2014-2016.

Moreover, injuries and a controversial suspension (serving just one game of a four-match ban for verbally abusing an assistant referee) meant Messi played just nine of 17 matches; they have won five with him, but managed just one victory in eight without the Barcelona man.

Argentina have the world’s most talented individual, but the collective has floundered. In June Argentina had their third coach of the campaign (appointed by third AFA president of the cycle) when the excellent Jorge Sampaoli took charge but he has had little time on the training ground to implant his complex tactical ideas.

Warning signs have long been there for Argentina. Performances at Under-20 level nosedived, leading to concern the talent pool is drying up. They have not produced a top defender in more than a decade and their goalkeeper, Sergio Romero cannot get a game at Manchester United. Cerebral passing midfielders are in short supply, leaving Messi eternally dropping deep.

Argentina got worse while others improved. The introduction of a 10-team, single-group World Cup qualifying format in 1996 has since produced the most competitive qualification process in history. Regular matches over a two-year cycle improved the overall standard, while vast travel and extreme variations in climate act as equalisers.

The proposed expansion of the World Cup will likely kill the most exciting qualifiers ever seen, and it’s no wonder the big boys want things easier.

“I am still confident that we will be at the World Cup,” Sampaoli says. The same cannot be said for his compatriots.

This week local media dug out 2014 instructions from Argentina’s Ministry of Health on how its football-mad citizens can avoid heart problems during the World Cup.

On Wednesday morning, 43 million hearts will be in mouths as Argentina hope to avoid catastrophe.