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There is no title at stake this time. This is the eighth round of South America’s World Cup qualifiers. And the match is likely to have little impact on who makes it to Qatar. With a 100% record in the campaign so far, Brazil have come close to making sure of their place even before the action reaches the half way stage. And something will have to go very badly wrong for Argentina to be drawn into the dogfight. Even so, Sunday afternoon’s clash in Sao Paulo is an important occasion — and not just because of the depth of the historical rivalry. Not even because Lionel Messi might become the highest scoring South American of all time. The Argentine has 76 goals to his name. The great Pele, who left the stage almost exactly 50 years ago, finished with 77. Could Messi choose this match to equal or even over-take the record?
But even this is secondary to the main theme of the match, highlighted on the eve of the game by Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni.
“I don’t think it’s relevant where you finish in the qualification table,” Scaloni said. “What is important is how you arrive at the World Cup.”
Brazil versus Argentina serves as a test of the pretensions of the two South American giants in Qatar little more than a year from now. It is the type of high-octane, high-pressure encounter with quality opposition that could take place in the knockout stages of the World Cup. Brazil, of course, go into the match without eleven of the players they called up — the nine Premier League players who were not released, plus two who were recalled by their clubs in Russia.
The relative passivity with which Brazil have gone along with this reality has a number of explanations. One, perhaps, is a perception that more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar, and that a spirit of cooperation with the European clubs will be needed. And then there is the position in the standings. Brazil can afford to experiment, to have a look at other options, to make the best of an undesired situation. Moreover, some of the missing players were unlikely to have seen action, and the others can be replaced.
First-choice keeper would likely have been Ederson of Manchester City, with Liverpool‘s Alisson pushing him close. But in their absence, Weverton of Palmeiras is a splendid deputy. The case of centre-back Thiago Silva will be addressed shortly, while few have mourned the lack of Manchester United midfielder Fred. And the three up front — Richarlison, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus — would all have been in contention to start. But none of them is seen as indispensable, and fans were more than happy to see local hero Gabriel Barbosa of Flamengo given a chance.
There is both a positive and a negative spin on the missing players. One is that Brazil have such enviable strength in depth that replacements can easily be found. The other is that there is a lack of genuine, indisputable world-class talent. Neymar fits into this category, but who else? The goalkeepers, yes. Casemiro, perhaps, although some are starting to question the mobility of the Real Madrid central midfielder. Centre-back Marquinhos? Without doubt. The Paris Saint-Germain player is one of those defenders from the discreet school, so good that sometimes he can pass unnoticed. He would walk into any national team in the world. But he will not be part of Brazil’s lineup on Sunday. A yellow card picked up late in Thursday’s 1-0 win away to Chile rules out Brazil’s most important defender.
Brazil, then, will be without both the centre-backs who played against Argentina in the final of the Copa America. It may well have been a mistake to play Thiago Silva in that game. The Chelsea veteran has inevitably lost some of his pace. At club level he is used in the middle of the back three, where he can operate in reduced space. It was noticeable during the Copa that whenever he played, Brazil found it harder to press in midfield because he sat deep. Angel Di Maria’s title winning goal came from this very situation, when Rodrigo De Paul was given time to pick the pass.
The logical development was to proceed with the rapid Eder Militao alongside Marquinhos. Both were excellent against Chile. But now the absence of Marquinhos throws huge responsibility onto Militao. So what does Tite do? The veteran Miranda has been recalled for the first time since the 2018 World Cup. Does Tite trust his experience? Or does he give a debut to the younger and quicker Lucas Verissimo of Benfica?
There are decisions the coach has to take with the shape of his attack, too. The Chile performance was not impressive, and, including the Copa, it leaves Brazil having scored just three goals in the last four games. Might it be the right time to have a look at Matheus Cunha? The new Atletico Madrid signing is a genuine centre-forward, who might be able to push back the Argentina defensive line and open up space for Neymar.
Although they are six points behind in the table, Argentina look more settled, with a model of play based around an intricate circuit of midfield passing. Scaloni has variations — the full-backs can be more or less attacking, and he can vary from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, with the inclusion of Di Maria — the formation he chose for the final of the Copa and for Thursday’s 3-1 victory away to Venezuela.
The more interesting questions here are individual rather than collective. Argentina will hope to welcome back Tottenham’s Cristian Romero after suspension — just three months after his debut already regarded as the first-choice centre-back. How good is he? How vulnerable might Nicolas Otamendi, his defensive partner, be at this stage in his career? Can Brazil find an attacking blend, and if so can Argentina defend against it? These are huge questions, valid not just for 90 minutes in Sao Paulo, but also for the World Cup in Qatar.