Argentina are facing the possibility of failing to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1970. Lionel Messi and co travel to Ecuador needing a result - but they haven't won in Ecuador in 16 years.
The thought of a World Cup without Lionel Messi is one football romantics would rather not contemplate.
But Messi's Argentina are teetering on the edge of a cliff following their latest demoralizing result – a goalless draw with Peru in front of a sold-out crowd in Buenos Aires - that leaves them outside the qualification places and the intercontinental playoff spot.
Their final qualifier is in Ecuador, who have already been eliminated but beat Argentina 2-0 the first time the two sides met in the South American qualifiers. That Argentina defeat set the tone for a miserable campaign that could yet end in ignominy.
For the wealth of talent at their disposal - Messi, Javier Mascherano, Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Nicolas Otamendi, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain – the beaten finalists of 2014 have struggled to pick up results.
As a result, Jorge Sampaoli's star-studded side face being the first Argentina team to fail to qualify for football's biggest showcase event since 1970.
What do Argentina have to do?
Argentina have it all to do. If they win their final match, they are guaranteed a playoff place against New Zealand in November.
Argentina can still go through automatically if group leaders Brazil avoid defeat against Chile. A draw would also be good enough to go straight through if there is a winner in the Peru versus Colombia match, Chile lose by two or Paraguay fail to win.
Argentina can still lose and reach the playoffs, providing Peru suffer a heavier defeat and Paraguay fail to win.
Sampaoli may appear to have an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, particularly in attacking positions. When Messi is in the team, they remain one of the world's best nations. But Argentina are distinctly average, even abject, without their superstar.
Messi has played in nine of Argentina's 17 qualifiers. In those nine games, Argentina amassed 18 points. The problems for Argentina have surfaced when he wasn't there through injury or suspension, with the team picking up just seven points from the eight games he didn't play.
Messi may have not won any silverware with Argentina and even toyed with international retirement after yet another lost final in the 2016 Copa America, but the statistics demonstrate the colossal influence he has on this team.
The good news for Argentina is that Messi is expected to play on Tuesday. The bad news is that they have not won at the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, which stands 2,782 meters above sea level, since 2001. And that was their only win there.
Argentina 'all at sea'
For some Argentines, the troubles of the national team have been a long time coming. Sergio Batista, a member of the 1986 World Cup-winning team, was scathing in his assessment.
"Argentina is all at sea. But this didn't happen recently. It's the end of a movie I've been watching for 10 years," Batista said.
"I believe in projects and planning, but in our football, there's nothing. Seven managers in 10 years? And three in a single qualifying campaign? It wouldn't happen anywhere else."
Peru chasing 35-year dream
Chile could seal their qualification with victory over Brazil in Sao Paulo. Brazil was the first country to qualify for next summer's World Cup.
Uruguay need only take a point in their home qualifier against already-eliminated Bolivia to be certain of progressing.
One of the most high-stakes games comes in the Peruvian capital of Lima, where Peru will aim to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 1982 when they host Colombia.
But all eyes will be on Quito to see whether Russia 2018 will be a World Cup that is played without one of the world's most glamorous teams and one of the sport's best players.