Argentina will aim to begin its latest recovery from major tournament final heartbreak when hosting Uruguay in a key World Cup qualifier in Mendoza on Thursday. Following on from defeats in the finals of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America, Argentina tasted agony for a third successive summer when Chile again came out on top in a penalty shootout to deny Lionel Messi and co a long awaited international title at the Copa America Centenario.
This time the fallout hit right to the core of Argentinian football. Messi, who missed a penalty shootout in the final and was left in tears, immediately announced his retirement from the national team, while coach Gerardo Martino soon followed through the exit door. The issue was not just the defeats but the turmoil at the Argentina Football Association, which had led to its affairs being taken over by FIFA in the days before the final.
The issues affecting the AFA have not been resolved, but the team is seeking to move forward. Edgardo Bauza, who has led both LDU Quito and San Lorenzo to Copa America titles, has been appointed to replace Martino and has received an immediate boost in his efforts to guide Argentina to Russia 2018.
As many expected at the time, Messi’s retirement from the international stage proved to be short-lived and he will be available for the visit of the team that currently sits atop the South American qualifying standings on Thursday. Messi has often found himself as the scapegoat for Argentina’s failures, but once the prospect of the five time Ballon d’Or winner never playing for the national team again became a real one, the country united behind him. And, despite concerns over a hamstring injury suffered while playing for Barcelona, he is set to play on Thursday.
“During our discussion, Leo showed me that he was very motivated,” Bauza said in the lead up to the match with Uruguay. “We talked about the Copa America, the World Cup. He's fine, and we'll take care of him.”
Instead of Messi, it is another player who has paid the price for Argentina’s succession of near misses. Gonzalo Higuain missed big chances in each of the three finals and, despite just being signed by Juventus for 90 million euros ($100 million), has been left off of Bauza’s first squad. Higuain’s omission comes despite the absence of Sergio Aguero through injury.
Argentina will go into its double header of qualifiers, which also includes a trip to Venezuela next Tuesday, in third place in the qualifying table and in the heat of an intense battle for the four automatic berths for Russia.
Uruguay currently leads the way, having lost only once in its first six matches. Its start to World Cup qualifying is all the more impressive when considering that star man Luis Suarez missed the first four games through suspension. But the man who continues to team up with Messi to such devastating effect at Barcelona will be in action in Mendoza on Thursday and will doubtless be desperate to make an impact after failing to get on the pitch during the Copa America Centenario due to injury.
Uruguay bowed out of the tournament in the United States at the group stage after defeats to both Mexico and Venezuela, but getting to Russia and its third consecutive World Cup for the first time since the 1970s is the main aim.
And the coach who has so rejuvenated the fortunes of the Uruguayan national team in the past decade, Oscar Washington Tabarez, remains in charge of the team, despite suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Tabarez is expected to select a familiar front two of Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani, while Nicolas Lodeiro, who has made a fine start to life at the Seattle Sounders, could also feature. Fiorentina midfielder Matias Vecino is unavailable through injury.
Prediction: Argentina has come out on top at home against Uruguay in the last four World Cup qualifying cycles, but it faces a tough test to repeat that success on Thursday. Uruguay should be typically hard to break down under Tabarez, while hoping for a moment of inspiration from Suarez and Cavani at the other end. With Bauza stressing the need to find balance between attack and defense, the two neighbors may take a share of the points.
Predicted Score: Argentina 1-1 Uruguay
Kickoff Time: 7.30 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: beIN Sports
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