If Argentina is to be the team to end Brazil’s remarkable record of never having lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil, Thursday would be a good time. Argentina will go into the match between the two historic rivals in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, as the team firmly under pressure.
Sitting in sixth place and outside even of a playoff spot for a trip to Russia after 10 games, Argentina can ill afford further slip-ups. And with a challenging contest at home to Colombia to follow on Tuesday, the next few days could be make-or-break if the country is to avoid missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970.
The good news for Argentina, then, is that Lionel Messi is fit and available and will start at the Mineirão. Due to injury, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner has played in just three of his country’s World Cup qualifiers thus far. Illustrating just how integral he is to the team, Argentina has won all three matches with the Barcelona star in the lineup and only won one of seven without him.
On Thursday, Messi will play a part in a two-man frontline alongside Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuaín. It means Bauza has opted to sacrifice Sergio Agüero in search for greater strength in midfield.
"I opted for [Ángel] Di María and Enzo Pérez because I believe they will be able to keep up the physical side," Bauza said at his pre-match press conference. "Enzo Pérez played in this position for two years in the selection, because it is there that he began to play. More than anything, we are thinking of the rival."
Results have not gone well for Bauza since he took charge this summer. After a home win over Uruguay in his opening match at the helm, Argentina has taken just two points from its next three games, including a home loss to Paraguay last time out.
Bauza’s tricky start contrasts sharply with the man with whom he will be battling wits on Thursday evening. Tite, who replaced Dunga in the wake of the side’s early Copa America Centenario exit, has led Brazil to four straight victories to take the team to the top of South America’s World Cup qualifying table, five points ahead of Argentina.
On Thursday, the former Corinthians coach will be without Real Madrid holding midfielder Casemiro, with Manchester City’s Fernandinho set to deputize. All eyes, though, will be on the battle between Messi and his Barcelona teammate Neymar. The Brazilian forward was absent through injury the last time Brazil played a competitive match at Belo Horizonte. But neither he nor any other Brazilian will need reminding of the score: Brazil 1-7 Germany.
Prediction: Argentina looks set to try to be solid behind the ball and attempt to exploit opportunities on the break through Messi and Higuaín. The absence of Casemiro from the midfield could make Brazil more vulnerable to just that sort of counter-attack. But Argentina has looked particularly shaky at the back and cannot be counted upon to keep a clean sheet. Still, a draw would be a satisfactory result for Bauza’s men.
Predicted Score: Brazil 1-1 Argentina
D: Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Miranda, Marcelo
Coutinho, Renato Augusto, Paulinho, Neymar
F: Gabriel Jesus
D: Zabaleta, Otamendi, Funes Mori, Mas
M: Perez, Biglia, Mascherano, Di María
F: Messi, Higuaín
Kickoff Time: 6:45 p.m. EST
TV Channel: beIN Sports
Live Stream: beIN Sports Connect