Brazil head the South American World Cup qualifying group and will hope to both solidify their own position and do further damage to the faltering campaign of their eternal rivals Argentina by taking all three points when the sides meet in Belo Horizonte (11.45pm Thursday).
It says much for the competitiveness of the South American qualifiers that Brazil themselves looked to be in trouble four rounds ago following just two wins from their opening six fixtures. An early exit from the Copa America Centenario in the summer brought an end to Dunga’s stewardship of the national team and both performances and results have improved significantly following the arrival of Tite (pictured) as his replacement.
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The 55-year-old won the Copa Libertadores (South America’s Champions League) and two Brazilian league titles in two spells in charge at Corinthians. He is considered one of the more progressive Brazil coaches, having taken time out in between to travel Europe in search of new ideas. Four wins out of four, including impressive victories away to Ecuador and at home to Colombia, suggest that reputation may well be deserved.
The most promising sign has been the return of a structured and collective approach to the circulation of the ball. Dunga’s Brazil could often be neatly sliced up into sections that rarely interacted with one another. Now everyone is involved in ensuring Brazil progress up the field in a coherent manner. There is good variation in the movement from midfield and there are already strong partnerships developing all over the pitch.
Tite is still just five months into the job and there are still a number of things for him to work on. There were, for example, a number of wobbles in the first half away to Venezuela. But the renewed vibrancy, in combination with the Gold medal success for Brazil’s Under-23 side at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, certainly seems to have got a sceptical Brazilian public back onside with the national team.
Like Brazil, Argentina changed their coach in the wake of the Copa America Centenario. Gerardo Martino resigned from his position after leading them to a runners-up finish and in his place arrived Edgardo Bauza, an experienced figure with two Copa Libertadores triumphs to his credit. Unlike Brazil, however, results have been disappointing.
Indeed, Argentina come into Thursday’s match and their home fixture against Colombia next week in a difficult position in the table. Draws away to Venezuela and Peru and a home defeat to Paraguay in their last three fixtures – in addition to Chile being awarded victory in a match they drew at home to Bolivia due to their opponents fielding an ineligible player – see them placed sixth on goal difference with eight rounds of fixtures remaining.
Bauza has yet to impose a clear style of play. The idea seems to change from match to match, with the only consistent being the lack of a structured approach to progressing the ball through midfield to the feet of Argentina’s talented forwards. It is still early days, he has had little time to work with his squad and it is perhaps unfair to expect immediate success. But his compatriots will look at the work Tite is doing with Brazil and wonder why.
The coach will certainly point towards the fact that in the one game in which he had Lionel Messi at his disposal, his side secured a very solid 1-0 win at home to Uruguay. Argentina have won all three of the matches Messi has started during the qualification process. Their record in their seven matches without him reads: one win, four draws and two defeats. As ever, creating an environment in which the Barcelona forward can thrive will be key.
Bauza had stated that he intends to implement a 4-4-2 formation for this match, with Messi presumably positioned as one of the two up front. Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori will return from suspension to reform their partnership in the centre of defence. Bauza has indicated that he will use quick players in wide areas as a launchpad for counter-attacks. A relatively defensive approach is to be expected.
This is, then, likely to be a tough test both for Tite and for the new-found affinity between the national team and the Brazilian public. This represents Brazil’s first return to the Mineirao stadium since their 1-7 thrashing at the hands of Germany in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup. Victory certainly wouldn’t expunge those demons but it would go some way towards painting a path from that catastrophe towards a brighter future.
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