It’s one of the greatest rivalries in world soccer, and when Argentina and Brazil meet in Buenos Aires on Thursday, the stakes will be even higher than the average "Superclasico de las Americas," particularly for the two coaches involved. Only once has either Argentina or Brazil failed to qualify for the World Cup, but a defeat for either team at the Estadio Monumental would put their qualifying campaign in an unenviable early hole.
Argentina, and coach Gerardo Martino, are under particular pressure heading into the prestige fixture after taking just one point from their opening two qualifiers. For the runners-up at both the last World Cup and Copa America, a first ever home qualifying loss to Ecuador last month was the worst possible start to their attempts to make it to Russia in 2018. A subsequent goalless draw in Paraguay provided no immediate relief. Now facing a meeting with their fiercest foes, followed five days later by a trip to World Cup quarterfinalists Colombia, Argentina could find themselves in serious peril of missing out on their first World Cup since 1970. In what is surely the most competitive South America qualification section in history, there is little room for error, even for a country able to boast such exceptional talent as Argentina.
Once again over the next two games, Martino will be without his standout talent. Lionel Messi, having missed the opening qualifiers, continues his recovery from a knee injury. And there is further bad news for Argentina. The player most capable of replacing the Barcelona great’s attacking inspiration, Sergio Agüero, is also absent with a hamstring injury. As if that weren’t enough, fellow forward Carlos Tevez, who has just completed a league and cup double with Boca Juniors, has now emerged as a fitness doubt with a knee problem.
Already Martino has turned back to Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín, who was left out of the squad last month. And the former Real Madrid man could now be the only experienced striker at Martino’s disposal, with the other berths taken up by the hugely promising, but also very young, duo of Juventus’ Paulo Dybala and Atlético Madrid’s Ángel Correa.
At least on the selection front, the news is significantly more positive for Martino’s Brazilian counterpart. Dunga was also without his talisman for the opening World Cup qualifiers, but Neymar, who has been sensational in the absence of Messi at Barcelona, is now available after completing a suspension incurred at this summer’s Copa America.
But, while Neymar is back, the impact of Brazil’s Copa America failure lives on for Dunga. A gritty, World Cup winning midfielder in 1994, Dunga has adapted a similar no-thrills approach to coaching the Seleção. That made him an unpopular choice with many when, having been dismissed following a quarterfinal exit at the 2010 World Cup, he was appointed for a second time following the World Cup disaster on home soil last year.
Dunga will know that his chosen counter-attacking style will never be universally beloved, but that he can keep critics at bay with success. Yet so far not only has the style brought criticism, but so too have the results. Despite winning all 12 of his friendly matches in charge, including against Argentina in Beijing 13 months ago, he has failed in the games that matter.
A quarterfinal loss to Paraguay at the Copa America was an inescapable disappointment, and his team were then beaten 2-0 in Chile to open World Cup qualifying. Although they bounced back with a 3-1 home win over a limited Venezuela five days later, another failure against Argentina would bring fresh unwanted scrutiny upon Dunga’s tenure.
It will be some comfort then that he can count upon some notable victories over Thursday’s opponents. Prior to the loss to Ecuador, Argentina’s last home qualifying loss came against Dunga’s Brazil in Rosario in 2009. And before that, the arguable high point of Dunga’s first spell in charge arrived when guiding Brazil to a classic counter-punching 3-0 victory over Argentina in the final of the 2007 Copa America.
For his latest attempt to get the better of La Albiceleste, Dunga has made some bold selection choices. The Liverpool duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino will miss out, but there is a place for 33-year-old Kaka, currently at Orlando City and who hasn’t played since his team’s Major League Soccer season ended more than two weeks ago. His choice of goalkeeper will also be closely watched. Botafogo’s Jefferson was dumped after the defeat to Chile, replaced by Internacional’s Allison. Both are included in the squad this time, but there is also a call up for the uncapped Cássio, of Brazilian league leaders Corinthians.
Prediction: With Neymar, Douglas Costa, Willian and Hulk, Brazil have the weapons and the approach under Dunga to cause a vulnerable Argentina defense real problems on the counter-attack. That has been the formula for Dunga’s previous success against his country’s great rivals and it could work again in Buenos Aires. However, especially with Messi and Aguero absent, Martino is likely to adapt a more cautious approach than he otherwise would. A share of the spoils could well be the outcome.
Predicted score: Argentina 1-1 Brazil