BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — With Argentina on the brink of another embarrassing elimination, Lionel Messi knows his team needs to improve. And quickly.
Argentina must beat guest Qatar on Sunday to have any realistic chance of avoiding its worst Copa America performance since 1983, the last time it was eliminated in the group stage of the South American competition.
“It would be crazy not to advance when three teams are practically guaranteed in the next round,” Messi said after Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Paraguay, a result that left Argentina in last place in Group B with one game remaining.
“We have to keep looking for our team’s identity, but we are running out of time,” Messi said.
Colombia leads the group with six points, four more than second-place Paraguay and five more than both Qatar and Argentina. Qatar, playing in Copa America for the first time, is ahead of Argentina on the tiebreakers.
The top two teams in each of the three groups advance, along with the best two third-place finishers.
“We are lucky to be alive,” said Lionel Scaloni, the inexperienced Argentina coach who has been heavily criticized back home for his choices in the first two games. “We will try to find our best form as we move forward.”
Argentina’s situation could have been even worse if goalkeeper Franco Armani hadn’t saved a penalty kick taken by Paraguay’s Derlis Gonzalez with the game tied 1-1 on Wednesday.
Victory against Qatar — the Asian champions who are playing in the South American tournament to gain experience ahead of the 2022 World Cup it will host — would usually be considered an easy task for Argentina, but not with the squad in turmoil.
Qatar came back from a two-goal deficit to earn a surprising 2-2 draw in the opener against Paraguay, then it put on a tough challenge against Colombia in its second match, losing 1-0 after conceding a late goal.
Argentina opened with a 2-0 loss to Colombia.
“I feel that the team has the confidence to win this last group game,” Messi said.
Argentina is trying to end a 26-year-old Copa America title drought. It is coming off losses in three straight finals — in the World Cup in 2014 and in the Copa America in 2015 and 2016. Argentina was eliminated by France in the round of 16 of last year’s World Cup in Russia.
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