Diego Maradona is praying for a miracle to save his job, says Darren Lewis
Desperate Diego Maradona has taken his Argentina squad to mass to pray for a World Cup miracle against Brazil on Saturday night.
The two-time winners are sensationally struggling to make South Africa next year and need a win against their arch-rivals, who are unbeaten in 17 games.
Argentina last missed the World Cup in 1970 and Maradona faces the sack if he fails with the likes of Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez at his disposal.
The religious service was held on Thursday at the training ground where Argentina is preparing for the game in Rosario, 180 miles north-west of the original destination for the contest, Buenos Aires.
The impromptu prayer meeting has led to renewed speculation that the stress that has been mounting on Maradona is beginning to take its toll.
The former attacking midfield remains a legend on the back of his exploits on the field for his country.
As a manager, however, he has been lampooned, with many inside and outside Argentina convinced he has no idea what he is doing.
The fact that one of the super-powers of world football is fourth in their qualifying group - behind Brazil, Chile and Paraguay - with the likes of Messi, Tevez and Aguero at their disposal is proof positive for many that Maradona is simply lurching from crisis to crisis.
The man himself, however, is standing his ground and has piled the pressure onto Barcelona superstar Messi to bale him out of trouble.
Despite his brilliant form for his club, Messi has yet to make a similar impact for his country.
Maradona has now demanded the boy wonder become a man for his country.
The Argentina coach said: "Messi has to become a man suddenly, he can no longer be the kid with promise, and he's showing it.
"He's fast, concentrated, totally committed, he knows the chance he has.
"We've been heaping responsibility onto him. Since I've been coaching Messi, since I've been watching him (train), this has been his best week.''
Brazil have not lost to Argentina in four matches since the teams' last meeting on Argentine soil, a Juan Roman Riquelme-inspired 3-1 victory in Buenos Aires in 2005.
Argentina are fourth - the final automatic qualifying berth - in their 10-nation World Cup qualifying group, five points adrift of leaders Brazil.
The unthinkable – a defeat – could see them reeled in by Ecuador and Uruguay leaving them three matches to save themselves.
A World Cup without Argentina and Messi, widely regarded as the world's best player, seems almost inconceivable.
It would also cost Maradona his job, which he why he has gone to such extraordinary lengths - on and off the pitch - in pursuit of victory in the early hours of this morning.
Maradona changed the venue from Buenos Aires to the more intimidating atmosphere 180 miles north-west in Rosario where the home fans are closer to the pitch.
Thursday's mass was organized by Nelida Pariani, the wife of former Argentine Football Association president Julio Grondona. Reporters were not allowed to attend the ceremony but the AFA have also revealed Pariani handed Maradona a rosary.
Maradona, beset by injuries, is giving defender Sebastian Dominguez a debut alongside his Velez Sarsfield team-mate Nicolas Otamendi.
The decision has sparked concern that the coach is taking a gamble with players not believed to be of the standard against which the Brazilian attack play every week in Europe.
Maradona will also give a first competitive start to Napoli midfielder Jesus Datolo after he scored on his debut in last month's 3-2 friendly win in Russia.
Maradona added: "Our idea is to go out to strangle Brazil.
"We will attack them down the wings with Maxi (Rodriguez) and Datolo, and with (Juan Sebastian) Veron through the middle.
"(Carlos) Tevez and Leo (Messi) will cause trouble for Brazil's two centre-backs.
"They have some big names, but whoever plays we know we are going into battle, whatever yellow jersey goes by we will have to chase it."