Argentina will be without a trio of attacking stars when they take on fierce rivals Brazil in a crunch World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires on Thursday. Lionel Messi, still missing with a knee injury that also ruled him out of the start of South America’s qualification campaign last month, is the headline absentee, but he is now joined on the sidelines by Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez, now back in Argentina with Boca Juniors.
It provides a major headache for coach Gerardo Martino, who’s also without defensive duo Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay, going into a crucial qualifying double-header against first Brazil and next Tuesday away in Colombia. Runners-up at both the 2014 World Cup and this summer’s Copa America, Argentina have made a slow start to their attempts to make it to Russia in 2018. While South America’s campaign is a long, grueling affair, a shock home defeat to Ecuador followed by a goalless draw in Paraguay has put them in early strife. Martino, though, has refuted suggestions that the team is too reliant on the talents of Messi.
“When we lose, there is Messi dependency, and when we win, you do not talk about that,” he said, according to beIN Sports. “The reality is that the team reached two finals in 10 months, but people can see it otherwise.
“The loss of Messi is important. The absence of players more accustomed to scoring also makes it more difficult to reach the goal. Against Paraguay we failed in our finishing, we had five or six clear chances to score.”
Adding to Martino’s concerns is that on Thursday he will be coming up against a player in the form of his life, and one whose qualities he has first-hand experience of. Martino was Neymar’s coach when he first left Brazilian club Santos to join Barcelona in the summer of 2013, and he has since continued to blossom into one of the world’s great players.
This season has been his best yet, scoring 11 goals in 10 La Liga games and particularly excelling in the absence of Messi. The 23-year-old missed Brazil’s first two qualifiers through a suspension picked up at the Copa America, but is now ready to spearhead Brazil’s hopes. And his coach, Dunga, claims that Neymar’s performances currently put him above even Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“If we look at the ranking by numbers and statistics, Neymar is superior right now,” Dunga said at his pre-match press conference, according to ESPN. “Messi is injured, Cristiano is expected to repeat what he did last year. Neymar has improved consistently since he arrived at Barcelona. He has done all that was expected of him with Messi out. He's in great form.”
Like Martino, Dunga struggled without his standout player last month. Still reeling from a disappointing exit in the quarterfinals of the Copa America, a 2-0 defeat to South American champions Chile piled more pressure on Dunga, before bouncing back with a much-needed home win over Venezuela.
And Dunga, who took charge of Brazil for the second time following the 2014 World Cup, can count upon a successful history against his country’s long-time foes. As well as a friendly victory over Argentina in Beijing last year, Dunga also led Brazil to a 3-1 win in Argentina during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and a 3-0 victory in the final of the 2007 Copa America. For this latest encounter, the former World Cup winning midfielder has selected a squad without Liverpool duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino, but with veteran Kaka, now at Orlando City.
D: Roncaglia, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Rojo
M: Biglia, Mascherano, Banega
F: Di María, Higuaín, Lavezzi
D: Dani Alves, Miranda, David Luiz, F. Luis
M: Elias, Luiz Gustavo
Willian, Neymar, Douglas Costa
Kickoff Time: 7 p.m. EST
TV Channel: beIN Sports
Live Stream: beIN Sports Connect
Update (7 p.m. EST): Torrential rain has caused the match to be postponed. Full details here.