Brazil and Argentina look like World Cup contenders again |
SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil are poised to overtake first place in the FIFA rankings and Argentina haven’t lost a game in 1,000 days.
It’s clear that the two South American football powerhouses have more than Neymar and Lionel Messi going for them as they head to the World Cup in Qatar in hopes of ending 20 years of European dominance.
Both sides failed in Russia in 2018, with Argentina losing to eventual champions France in the round of 16 and Brazil taking on Belgium in the quarter-finals.
But they look great again now, each with a deep squad, a highly respected coach and a superstar striker who can decide games for himself.
Brazil have already broken the points record in South American qualifying with 45 points, six points ahead of second-placed Argentina, before the two even met for a suspended final game last year.
Argentina, however, won the Copa America title in 2021 by beating Brazil 1-0 in the final, handing Messi his first major trophy with the national team.
Messi and Neymar still face huge pressure at the World Cup but both teams are trying to be less dependent on their superstars for this year’s tournament in Qatar.
Brazil have found a midfield base in Lucas Paquetá and an aggressive striker in Vinicius Jr. to relieve Neymar. Argentina turned Rodrigo de Paul into a key player to protect Messi and get the most out of winger Lautaro Martinez.
Even with a squad full of reinforcements, Brazil beat Bolivia 4-0 on Tuesday at altitude in La Paz.
“The feeling I have now is one of peace,” said Brazil coach Tite.
One advantage Tite has over rival Lionel Scaloni is more flexibility with his lineup. He played Neymar as a centre-forward, Paquetá as a box-to-box player with Philippe Coutinho as a playmaker and found good, young options ahead of Raphinha, Antony, Rodrygo and Matheus Cunha.
Tite has also seen the recent rise of midfielder Bruno Guimarães, who could challenge Fred for a place in the starting line-up.
Argentina have fewer options on the bench but are unbeaten in their last 31 matches. He has also found a trustworthy goalkeeper in Emiliano Martinez and an energetic midfielder in Leandro Paredes, another player who helps Messi perform at his best.
“South American qualifying is very difficult and this team has adapted to everything,” Scaloni said after Argentina’s 1-1 draw with Ecuador.
The doubts surrounding the two teams mainly stem from their lack of experience against European sides. The last time for both was in 2019, when Brazil edged the Czech Republic 3-1 and Argentina drew 2-2 with Germany. Then the pandemic started, the schedule was tight and travel to games was limited.
There are also some questions about the two coaches, despite the impressive results in recent years.
Can Tite learn from the previous World Cup and make changes faster? He admitted that was one of his flaws in Russia.
How will Scaloni fare as coach at a World Cup for the first time – especially knowing this could be Messi’s last major tournament? Last week, the 34-year-old star opened up about the possibility of retirement after Qatar.
They will find out their group opponents in Friday’s World Cup draw, which should give a better idea of their chances of success.
“We’ll keep an eye out as best we can and study which teams will be in our group,” Brazilian Richarlison said. “We have to focus on the friendlies we have left and prepare well because we have everything to play a big tournament.”
Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi is also optimistic his team can do better than four years ago.
“We are going to the World Cup hoping we can reach the final,” he said.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.