INTERNATIONAL football fanatic Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) analyses Thursday night’s crunch clash between old rivals Brazil and Argentina in the South American edition of 2018’s World Cup qualifiers.
Brazil v Argentina | Thursday 23:45 | Bet365 stream
Brazil and Argentina have claimed seven World Cups, 22 Copa Americas and 14 FIFA World Players of the Year between them – the pair are synonymous with international success and when the great rivals lock horns, it remains one of the hottest fixtures on the planet.
On Thursday night the two nations face-off in vastly different positions during South America’s elongated qualification phase for the 2018 World Cup and so there’s plenty to play for.
Brazil sit top of the tree with a five-point cushion over fifth-place, the final play-off position thanks to a run of four consecutive victories. Argentina arrive in sixth, a point outside of the automatic qualification places having taken just two points from a possible nine in their past three outings.
Returning to the scene of the crime
The encounter sees Brazil return to the scene of their most humiliating game in history, Belo Horizonte. It was in this very stadium that the Selecao were sliced, diced and disgraced 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-final two years ago. Seven members of the current squad were in the Mineirao that fateful July day.
Brazil hasn't completely recovered from that disaster and whilst the Samba Boys swept to Olympic gold in August and picked up a 100% return under new head coach Tite, supporters in the south still haven’t been totally won over.
Although Brazil boasted sell-out crowds in the northern cities Natal, Recife, Salvador and Manaus but 9,000 tickets were still unsold just a week before this match.
Brazil back with a bang
Nevertheless, Tite and his troops deserve plenty of credit for getting the show back on the road. The new boss took the captaincy off golden boy Neymar and decided to rotate the role game-to-game, an initiative he deployed at Corinthians to promote shared leadership. It’s worked wonderfully.
The Samba Boys coach has also reduced Neymar’s tactical role. Under Dunga, the Barcelona star was the focal point of the team with Brazil often appearing as a one-man unit. Now he’s roaming from the left, a position he enjoys at Barca.
Elsewhere, Philippe Coutinho has won his place back in with 19 year-old hitman Gabriel Jesus making up the Selecao’s talented forwards. The pacey youngster plays as Tite’s number nine in a 4-1-4-1 that also acts as a 4-3-3 and his effective partnership with Neymar has proven a real success, seeing the striker notch four goals in his first four full internationals.
However, Jesus has been showing signs of fatigue with Palmeiras, failing to notch in nearly two months and it should be said, Neymar has been far from inspiring over the past month. But a much larger headache for Tite arrives in midfield with holding midfielder Casemiro still unavailable through injury.
Fernandinho will deputise – as he did in last month’s matches against Bolivia and Venezuela – but for all his versatility and lung power, the Manchester City man isn’t a fantastic passer of the ball. That’ll put extra emphasis on Renato Augusto to run the show with Paulinho or Giuliano making up the midfield.
Tite has brought calm, competence and a clear idea of play and we should expect the hosts to seek to impose themselves on the game and control the centre of the field. They’ll press high and will want to dictate the tempo as they defend their unbeaten record in all-time home World Cup qualifiers.
Argentina will therefore be hoping to thrive off scraps. The visitors have a devilishly difficult November to negotiate with Colombia lying in wait next week so you’d assume the under-pressure Edgardo Bauza will set his side up to play on the counter, happily accepting a point if it’s on offer.
Last month the 1-0 loss to Paraguay that featured a missed Sergio Aguero penalty saw the nation drop out of the automatic qualification spots for the first time since the new system was implemented in 1998.
Adding to the discord in the away dressing room, Bolivia were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player and had two results revoked. The ruling gave Chile and Peru 3-0 wins, outcomes that saw Chile climb above Argentina on goal difference.
The world's greatest returns
The key for the Albiceleste is of course the return of the world’s greatest, Lionel Messi. The miniature genius missed Argentina's last three qualifying matches (W0-D2-L1) and the side have won just once in seven games on the road to Russia without him. In contrast, Argentina are three from three when the 29 year-old has played.
Bauza has struggled to reduce Argentina’s dependence on Messi. Successive managers have failed to make the Albiceleste attack into a unit and the guests have looked like a disjointed mess in recent matches with a defence that’s creaking alarmingly.
Argentina are likely to move towards a more traditional 4-4-1-1 here instead of their standard 4-2-3-1 in a bid to keep their vulnerable centre-backs covered whilst also allowing the side to gain supremacy from the flank against the threat of Neymar and Coutinho.
Defensive and attacking deficiencies
Their cumbersome backline looked highly vulnerable in trips to Venezuela and Peru – two teams at the wrong end of the table – games in which Argentina conceded 28 shots in total. But they’ll also need to sharpen up in the final third.
Gonzalo Higuain should start with Messi in the forward positions whilst out-of-form Angel Di Maria will play from the left with the Albiceleste desperate to add to their paltry tally of 11 goals in 10 games – only three of the 10 teams on the continent have scored fewer.
The betting angle
Brazil have been chalked up at 8/7 (Marathon) having W4-D1-L0 in their first five home qualifiers – it’s a quote I’m happy to support. The Samba Boys have scored at least twice in each of those five fixtures – seven goals arriving in the first half hour – and will be keen to inflict further damage on their neighbours.
There are contrasting trends when viewing the goals markets. The Samba Boys have seen all five games as hosts feature Over 2.5 Goals winners but only three of Argentina’s 10 outings have followed suit with four encounters failing to feature more than a solitary strike.
Argentina have made their feelings clear – they’ll be looking to contain and counter whilst targeting set-pieces. I wouldn't be too surprised to see this fixture fail to produce a high-scoring spectacle but it's also hard to rule out an away goal with Messi and co in tow.
I still want to be with Brazil and ultimately I'd fancy the Selecao to squeeze out three potentially decisive points on their road to Russia. So I'll boost the 8/7 on offer by backing Brazil to win 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 at 15/8 (BetVictor)
Brazil v Argentina – Brazil to win 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 (15/8 BetVictor)