- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - Lionel Messi may be on his way back from injury, but Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza is still worried about his team’s qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Argentina reached the final of the 2014 World Cup and can now count on Messi, the five-time winner of the world player of the year award. However, the team’s progress was checked this week after FIFA ordered Bolivia to forfeit two World Cup qualifiers for fielding an ineligible player.

Chile gained two points and is now in fifth place in the South American qualifying standings, above Argentina. Only the top four countries qualify automatically for Russia, with the fifth-place team going to a continental playoff.

“I’m worried because the qualifying is still not assured and must still be won,” Bauza told The Associated Press on Wednesday in an interview at the Argentine Football Association headquarters in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Bolivia’s soccer federation has announced that it will appeal against the FIFA sanctions.

Bauza said Argentina would have to wait for Bolivia to file its appeal and then for FIFA to respond. “But beyond this conflict with Bolivia, the qualifying is still purely and exclusively up to us,” he said. “I still think that if we win all our home games, we’ll qualify for the World Cup.

Four home wins would take Argentina to 28 points, the same total it reached in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa under former coach Diego Maradona.

“That’s our main goal,” Bauza said. “It’s what’s most important now.”

Argentina faces a key World Cup qualifier against archrival Brazil in Belo Horizonte on Nov. 10 and at home against Colombia in San Juan five days later.

“These will be two games with two direct rivals … it would be good to at least get four points,” Bauza said.

Bauza has coached Argentina for four games since replacing Gerardo Martino after the Copa America in the United States.

After starting with a 1-0 home win over Uruguay, courtesy of a goal by Messi, Argentina has only managed to take two points out of a possible nine.

It drew 2-2 with Venezuela in Merida and with Peru in Lima, before losing 1-0 to Paraguay at home in Cordoba. Messi missed those last three games because of a groin injury, but has been in top form for Barcelona and will be back to face Brazil.

“Messi is a player that makes the difference. He’s very important and when the rival is facing him, their worries always increase,” Bauza said. “But Argentina has players who are also at a great level, so we can play without him. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Although Messi has been missed, Argentina continues to search for a style of play. Bauza has been slammed in the local press for some questionable decisions and his critics point out that Argentina has only scored 11 goals so far, less than half as many as Brazil and three less than Peru, which is now eighth in the standings.

“The criticism doesn’t bother me at all. It’s normal…What irks me is the lack of respect for me, but also for my players,” Bauza said. “Some journalists think that’s the way to get a bigger audience.”

Bauza also recalled the criticism that his predecessors had to endure after Argentina lost three consecutive finals: the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in 2015 and 2016.

“We come in second and we say that we fail,” Bauza said. “We Argentines are very complicated.”

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