World Cup stars – Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Messi shine


South America’s four World Cup-bound squads — Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador — all played friendlies on Monday as they prepare for Qatar.

Brazil and Uruguay earned respective wins over teams that will also be at the World Cup (5-1 over Tunisia and 2-0 over Canada) while Ecuador played a scoreless draw with Qatar-bound Japan. Argentina, meanwhile, had a convincing 3-0 win over Jamaica.

Taking into account their performances, we answer a key question for each CONMEBOL side as their preparation for the game’s biggest stage continues.


Can things be going too well for Brazil?

Tunisia had not conceded a goal in seven games — and then they came up against Brazil in Paris. Up by four by halftime thanks to Raphinha (two goals), Richarlison, and Neymar, the Brazilians finished with an emphatic 5-1 win following Pedro‘s superb shot in the 74th minute.

Everything is going right for Brazil. Every tactical formation used by coach Tite — he now has used three different setups — seems to work. Every player he brings in seems to hit the ground running. Shots hit the post and go in, attackers are played narrowly onside. And after his penalty conversion against Tunisia, Neymar is just two goals shy of matching Pele’s mark of 77.

Since losing in the final of the Copa America in the middle of last year, Brazil have won 12, drawn three and lost none, with 38 scored and just five conceded. It is a fabulous record, achieved with a style that justifiably makes them favourites to bring the trophy home from Qatar. But World Cups are not won with a succession of romps. Even the 1970 side had to overcome some problems along the way, especially against England and Uruguay. The 2002 team were fortunate not to be beaten by Belgium.

Truly victorious teams have to play their way through the toughest challenges — something that Brazil have not had to do over the past year. They are clearly much improved since losing to Argentina in the final of the 2021 Copa America, with a far greater range of attacking options. But it is worth remembering how they lost that game — going behind after a defensive error and then making it harder for themselves to get back in the game as a consequence of foolishly becoming involved in spats and rows when they should have been keeping the ball rolling. The side would seem to have greatness in its grasp. Whether potential becomes reality might depend on the emotional control of the team when the going gets tough.

What will we do without Messi (and will Argentina adjust)?

It is entirely possible that in three month’s time the international career of Lionel Messi will be over. It need not be the case. He is clearly enjoying himself with Argentina, so he could carry on. But a sixth World Cup would surely be asking too much. There is no way round it. The end is coming. What on earth are we going to do without him?

More specifically, what are Argentina going to do? Coach Lionel Scaloni might be thinking about it. Last Friday against Honduras he gave debuts off the bench to three players — centre back Nahuel Perez, central midfielder Enzo Fernandez and attacking midfielder Thiago Almada. These players might not play much of a role in the World Cup, if they go at all. But they will have a part to play in the future of the side — on that dreadful day when Messi will be no more.

There was a sneak preview in New Jersey on Tuesday night, when Messi did not start the 3-0 win against Jamaica. The good news was that Argentina took comfortable control without him. The better news was a goal from Julian Alvarez, a player with a great deal to offer in the years to come. And the even better news for the capacity crowd at Red Bull Arena was that Messi came on early in the second half. The game seemed to be drifting until he struck two wonderfully well taken late goals to seal the win and send the fans home happy.

It is now 35 games unbeaten for Argentina, and one of the most interesting aspects of this latest triumph was that they ended it with a three centre back formation — Lisando Martinez coming off the bench to play on the left of a trio with Nicolas Otamendi in the middle and Cristian Romero on the right. Scaloni may have half an eye on a post-Messi future. But his focus is clearly on Qatar, and it was fascinating to see him experiment with a formation that he might use as a surprise in the course of the World Cup.

To 4-4-2 or not to 4-4-2? That is Uruguay’s question.

There are less than two months to go and Uruguay coach Diego Alonso might still be confused about how his team is going to line up in the World Cup. The standard formation for the last few years has been 4-4-2, with the attacking spearhead of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Now they are ageing it is unlikely that the pair will be used together. But even if they were firing on all cylinders, there is pressure in the ranks to try something else.

Uruguay now have a fine generation of midfielders, who are probably better suited to other systems. They may well be at their best with the trio in the centre of the pitch, with Matias Vecino anchoring between Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur. That was how they started against Iran last Friday, with Darwin Nunez up front on the left of an attacking three. It did not suit Nunez, and Uruguay reverted back to the 4-4-2. But as soon as they made the change, and took off Vecino, they conceded the game’s lone goal.

On Tuesday against Canada they once more lined up in a 4-4-2 with Nunez and Suarez up front. Nunez helped his cause by sealing a 2-0 win with a goal. But without the trio in the centre of the pitch Uruguay looked more vulnerable defensively. They were often at full stretch keeping out the Canadians, and would surely have been punished by a stronger side. They ended the game playing a lone striker, with playmakers Nico De La Cruz (who scored the first goal) and Giorgian de Arrascaeta operating behind, a system that probably suits those players better.

So what to do? Can a team with Suarez, Nunez and Cavani really play just one up front? Is the balance of the side better that way? Or will they go with the tried and trusted two-man attack? Decision day is approaching for Alonso.

Is Ecuador’s glass half full or half empty?

Five straight games without conceding a single goal, five consecutive clean sheets — a piece of data to delight any coach. But Ecuador boss Gustavo Alfaro is clearly concerned that his side have only scored twice in these games — and played out a second straight goalless draw, this time to Japan.

Next time they take the field it will against World Cup hosts Qatar in the opening match. The eyes of the entire planet will be on Ecuador’s young side as they kick off the whole tournament. The problem is that all of Alfaro’s attacking players seem to have run out of form at the same time — confirmed towards the end of the Japan game when Ecuador were a little fortunate to be awarded a penalty, and all-time top scorer Enner Valencia had his spot kick saved. Valencia is firing blanks, rangy centre forward Michael Estrada is on a bad run and Alfaro has not been convinced by any of the alternatives.

But of course, while they are not conceding, they are always in the game. And even with senior centre back Felix Torres out injured, the defending has mostly been solid. Most of their problems have been self-inflicted — a slip or a poor pass out of defence rather than failing to deal with the threat of the opposition. But the level of opposition in the World Cup will surely be higher, and the need for goals will be greater. Ecuador will find out in November whether the glass is half full or half empty.



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