Just five rounds into a grueling 18-round World Cup qualification progress, Thursday’s contest between Chile and Argentina in Santiago will not be nearly as decisive as the last time the two countries faced off, at the same venue, in last summer’s Copa America final. Yet, such is the competitiveness of South America’s qualification campaign and the unevenness of the starts for both teams, there is still plenty of pressure weighing on this rematch.
Argentina came out on the losing end of the penalty shootout that decided the Copa America final, extending their trophy drought at senior international level past 22 years. For coach Gerardo Martino, then, a strong start to qualifying was keenly sought. Instead, they took just two points from their first three matches against Ecuador, Paraguay and Brazil to put Martino under intense pressure. That strain was eased by a 1-0 win in Colombia last time out, but the margin for error remains slim. Argentina lie down in sixth place in the 10-team table, with only the top four getting automatic qualification for Russia 2018 and the fifth entering a playoff.
It will be a significant boost to Martino, then, that his star man is back available. Lionel Messi was forced to miss the opening four qualifiers last year as he recovered from injury at Barcelona. Along with Messi’s return, Manchester City striker Sergio Agüero is also back involved, having not played a part since going off injured 24 minutes into the opening qualifier against Ecuador. With Argentina also able to call upon Juventus forward Paulo Dybala and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín, who has 29 Serie A goals to his name already this season, Martino’s attacking options are arguably the envy of every other national team coach in the world.
But he could well need them to be firing on all cylinders given the paucity of his options at the other end of the field. Not only is veteran midfield anchorman Javier Mascherano suspended for the game against Chile, but center-back Nicolas Otamendi is almost certain to miss out as he continues his recovery from injury.
Their opponents, though, have their own issues. Coming off a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay that has left them in fifth place in the standings, Chile are also now beginning life under a new coach. The architect of their historic Copa America success on home soil, Jorge Sampaoli, left in January after weeks of tension with the Football Federation of Chile president. There was also a suspicion that Sampoli felt he had taken the team as far as they could go, with key players now passing their prime.
It is now the job of another Argentine-born coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi, to prove that is not the case. He has also taken up the responsibility of introducing new talent, including locally-based young players Jeisson Vargas, Nicolas Castillo and Felipe Campos.
Pizzi may need to utilize some of that new blood, too, since Chile will be without several of the top performers from their Copa America win. Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal, along with forward Eduardo Vargas and playmaker Jorge Valdivia are suspended. Charles Aranguiz remains absent through injury, while defender Gonzalo Jara is also a fitness doubt.
D: Isla, Medel, Jara, Mena
M: Díaz , Silva
F: Sánchez , Pinilla, Beausejour
D: Mercado, Demichelis, Funes Mori, Rojo
M: Biglia, Kranevitter, Banega
F: Messi, Agüero , Di María
Prediction: Rarely will there have been a team lineup with as gaping a contrast between its attacking and defensive quality as Argentina will be on Thursday. Martin Demichelis performed poorly in the Manchester derby, while Everton’s Ramiro Funes Mori is far from adverse to blunders. Without Mascherano protecting them, there should certainly be opportunities for Chile. The question is whether without the pace up front of Vargas and drive in midfield of Vidal they can take advantage. There is also the uncertainty of to what degree Pizzi maintains the high pressing blueprint he inherited. It could take some time for he and Chile to adapt to each other.
Chile and Argentina may have to settle for a point apiece.
Predicted score: Chile 1-1 Argentina
Time: 7:30 p.m. EDT