Why Argentina and Brazil look like Qatar World Cup contenders

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Why Argentina and Brazil look like Qatar World Cup contenders

Twenty years have passed since South America last won a World Cup. The continent’s recent qualifiers show that Brazil and Argentina are shaping up to be strong contenders in Qatar, and that impression was strongly confirmed by their first warm-up matches against opponents from other regions.

Argentina’s Finalissima encounter at Wembley against European champions Italy ended in a 3-0 victory, with the Italians fortunate that the gap between the sides was not wider. The game was a synthesis of the extraordinary strides Argentina have made since the last World Cup and especially since the 2019 Copa America, when they suffered their last defeat 32 games ago.

They had to fight for the right to play and the absence of midfield anchorman Leandro Paredes took away some of the fluidity of their passing game – Guido Rodriguez was an uncertain, defensively oriented substitute. But once the passing round got going, Argentina took control.

Italy could never get a grip on Giovani Lo Celso and together with Rodrigo De Paul they started putting Lionel Messi into play in areas of the field where he could damage the Italian defence.

This has been Argentina’s hallmark for the past three years: along with the ever-improving relationship between Messi and centre-forward Lautaro Martinez and the flourishes added by Angel Di Maria in the last third.

All of this proved too much for Italy, who were swept away before half-time. Argentina won the ball high. As so often, Lo Celso met Messi, who saved Giovanni Di Lorenzo on the right and aimed for Martinez to slide in. Martinez then showed his back on goal play and slid Di Maria to a superbly subtle chip finish over Gianluigi Donnarumma, who perhaps should have been faster off his line.

But it was Donnarumma who kept the result respectable in the second half, possibly helped by Argentina’s obsession with scoring for Messi. The final blow, at the very end, was a goal from Paulo Dybala, which came from an accidental Messi assist.

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Aside from such second-half considerations, the great strength of this side is that coach Lionel Scaloni has surrounded Messi with what is probably the best collective structure of his international career.

The defense can still be a concern, despite dramatic improvements from Emiliano Martinez in goal and Christian Romero in centre-back. His partner Nicolas Otamendi is certainly past his best. Italy lacked the pace or talent to deliver a major test and Sunday’s opponents Estonia are unlikely to prove too challenging.

To celebrate, however, are the patterns the team can weave in possession. In previous cycles, Argentina had a plan A: give Messi the ball and hope. Plan B was also to give Messi the ball and hope and there was no Plan C. Now, highlighted by their first win at Wembley, they have something much more coherent and collective.

The same goes for Brazil and the team’s relationship with Neymar. It’s not just about the PSG star anymore – and not just because Vinicius Junior has developed into a world-class talent. Brazil also have a side, which gave coach Tite plenty of reason to rave about an impressive 5-1 away win over South Korea.

In recent months, Brazil have been working on attacking variations, all of which could be seen in Seoul. The team have become accustomed to using two wingers, Raphinha on the right and Vinicius on the left. But with Vinicius still recovering from the Champions League final and only being used for the final twenty minutes, Tite reverted to an earlier plan. Raphinha kept his place. But on the right he used the versatile midfielder Lucas Paqueta.

That worked wonderfully. One of Brazil’s first chances came from Paqueta, who entered the field unmarked and combined well with Neymar, who then used the space to drift to the flank. And Paqueta wide created a corridor inside for left-back Alex Sandro’s surprising attacking thrusts – a key factor in Brazil’s first three goals.

In the opener, Alex Sandro reached the baseline and pulled back to allow Fred – often seen around the area – to fire off a shot that was likely on target before Richarlison put the finishing touches. And for the other two, Alex Sandro was brought down on penalties as he again appeared as an element of surprise.

Brazil pushed high which made it very difficult for South Korea to push forward and use their speed against the Brazilian defence. Against the run of play, they were briefly even – Uijo Hwang turned Thiago Silva with surprising ease and great skill to place a shot at the far post.

There were sporadic moments of the Korean menace as they attempted to hit the space behind Daniel Alves or run straight into the veteran’s back. However, Brazil managed to plug the holes, with Fred often showing up at just the right time to wipe out the threat.

And to complete Tite’s day, the last two goals came from players the manager trusted despite criticism – Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus came off the bench to round out the game 5-1.

They have now played exactly 100 games since the disastrous 7-1 defeat by Germany in the 2014 semifinals. But with every convincing performance, they’ve put distance between themselves and historic humiliation and earned the right to dream of ending a 20-year dry run in Qatar.

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