INTERNATIONAL football obsessive Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on Thursday night's crunch World Cup qualifier between Uruguay and Argentina.
Uruguay v Argentina | Friday 1st September 2017, 00:00
The 1930 World Cup final pitted Uruguay and Argentina together in Montevideo's Centenario stadium. Uruguay were 4-2 winners that day and 87 years later are desperate to repeat the feat in a high-stakes River Plate derby.
The two South American giants are locked in a close race for World Cup qualification and meet in a match that could have significant ramifications in the race for Russia. With Brazil already qualified and only Bolivia and Venezuela eliminated, seven sides are chasing the three remaining automatic slots.
Uruguay currently sit third but only a point above fifth-placed Argentina, who occupy the play-off place. With only four points separating second-placed Colombia and sixth-placed Ecuador, it really is all to play for in CONMBEBOL.
A third of the way through the marathon qualification process, Uruguay topped the table on goal difference (W4-D1-L1) and at the midway point, La Celeste were sitting pretty at the peak alone (W6-D1-L2).
Historically, 28 points has always been enough for direct qualification and Oscar Washington Tabarez’s troops were only nine points adrift of that tally with nine games to play. But heading into this week, Uruguay have dropped to third and only a point above the play-off position (W7-D2-L5).
Over the past five rounds of action, La Celeste have accrued just four points (W1-D1-L3) and conceded 12 goals. Once looking comfortable, Uruguay are now anxiously looking over their shoulders and appearing alarmingly brittle.
Uruguay’s defensive concerns
Tabarez has kept faith with a small group – Uruguay have only used 28 players in the campaign, everyone else has used more – and with defensive solidity essential to his team’s performance, the veteran coach is understandably concerned.
In his second stint as Uruguay boss, Tabarez has stayed loyal to his tried-and-trusted game plan. Uruguay are cautious – often too cautious for their own good – and aim to ensure they’re difficult to play against, ceding possession and happy to excel in the transition from defence to attack.
Not often are La Celeste easy on the eye – not that they care. They utilise the counter-attack well and are a fierce prospect from set-pieces. Defensively they’re diligent and tireless but that’s been lost over the past 12 months. The central midfield and defensive positions have become a worry for Tabarez. His team haven’t been tough to play against recently, conceding too many goals. Nine have been shipped in three qualifiers and six more in the two recent friendlies – all five fixtures were lost.
Uruguay team news
One of the team’s stalwarts, Egidio Arevalo Rios, is now 35 and Tabarez must decide whether to field the tigerish veteran central midfielder in a game of such magnitude. The most likely scenario will see Uruguay protect their defence with a phalanx of defensive midfielders, Rios included.
Elsewhere, a fully fit Luis Suarez would be La Celeste’s chief attacking threat but injury has put his participation in doubt. The Barcelona star has travelled to Montevideo and the suggestion is he’ll play having trained with the team but what condition he’ll be in remains to be seen.
Uruguay need Suarez. Edison Cavani is a fine striker but with Abel Hernandez and Diego Rolan both absent through injury, Christian Stuani might be recalled to the starting XI should Tabarez’s skipper be left on the bench. Meanwhile, PSV’s gifted and lanky Gaston Pereiro could be given a role.
In nine attempts, Jorge Sampaoli has never won his first competitive match in charge of any of his previous teams but the Duracell bunny will be desperate to break that unwanted record on Thursday evening having been given the gig in June.
Sampaoli is La Albiceleste’s third coach of a treacherous campaign thus far. The visitors have lost their last four away World Cup qualifiers and won just six of their 14 ties (W6-D4-L4); despite the star-studded attack available, Argentina have been unable to click or excite.
La Albiceleste have scored just 15 goals – a sad indictment of a side that has been punching far below its weight. To put that sorry return into context, even bottom-of-the-table Venezuela have scored more.
Argentina’s new look attack?
Goals shouldn’t be an issue for Argentina. Sampaoli is set to field a 3-4-2-1 formation with the recently recalled Mauro Icardi spearheading the attack, flanked by Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala.
The trio scored seven goals between them at the weekend – almost half as many as the national team have managed in 14 rounds of World Cup qualifiers. Under Sampaoli’s watch, there’s genuine optimism that Argentina might finally have a coach able to get the best out of them.
Is there one area of concern? Sure. Messi and Dybala have played just 45 minutes of the current campaign together whilst the proposed front three have never lined up in the same XI. The onus is on Sampaoli to cement the system.
Sampaoli’s system for Argentina
Sampaoli oversaw summer friendlies against Brazil and Singapore and there was enough evidence to presume he’ll take a familiar approach to his new gig. The ex-Chile boss likes his sides to impose their game on the opposition, strangling them back in their own half, throwing men forward to create options close to goal.
But the age-old issue of defensive stability continues to cloud progress. Nico Otamendi seems a certain starter but Javier Mascherano has been picked as a defender in this squad and Argentina will miss his bite and organisation in the centre of midfield if he’s fielded at centre-back.
With Uruguay supreme in the air, defensive height could be an issue for the guests. Federico Fazio is the alternative to Mascherano but his lack of pace would leave Argentina lacking in other areas.
Overall though, I’m happy to give Sampaoli the benefit of the doubt. He might now have been in charge for long but he’s spent the past month travelling around Europe, armed with a laptop loaded with match footage demonstrating what he wants from each player. The man is always prepared.
The betting angles
Victory for either side could prove decisive by the time the campaign comes to a conclusion and there is a lingering doubt that the enormity of the contest at hand could lead to a damp squib; Uruguay’s cautious nature – protecting their advantage – and Argentina to afraid to suffer defeat.
But with so many question marks over the two teams’ defensive systems and personnel, plus the array of glittering attackers on show, I’m going to overrule those concerns and back a goal-heavy spectacle.
Both Teams To Score (4/5 10BET) has paid out in six of Uruguay’s last seven internationals – each of their last nine when including friendlies have rewarded Over 2.5 Goals backers – with the hosts only firing a solitary blank on the road to Russia thus far, it should give us a good run for our money.
Argentina have shipped at least two goals in their past four qualifiers on the road, keeping a sole shutout in six games as guests. And although recent attacking trends are concerning, I’m going to invest faith in Sampaoli masterminding a positive, forward-thinking performance.
Alternatively, Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score can be backed at 6/5 (Coral) having banked in Uruguay’s last five World Cup qualifiers but punters may be keen to have a small interest on the 4/1 (William Hill) on BTTS in the first-half – a selection that’s occurred in six of Uruguay’s last seven outings.
Uruguay v Argentina – Both Teams To Score (4/5 10BET)