Twenty years have passed since South America last won the World Cup. Evidence from the continent’s recent qualifying series is that Brazil and Argentina are shaping up to be serious contenders in Qatar, and this impression has been forcefully confirmed by their first warm-up encounters with opponents from other regions. .
Argentina’s Finalissima encounter at Wembley with European champions Italy turned into a 3-0 rout, where the Italians can count themselves lucky that the gap between the teams was not bigger. The game was a synthesis of the extraordinary progress Argentina have made since the last World Cup, and especially since the 2019 Copa America where, 32 games ago, they suffered their last defeat.
They had to fight for the right to play, and the absence of a midfielder Leandro Paredes took away some of the fluidity of their deaths – Guido Rodriguez was an unstable, more defensive substitute. But once the overtaking circuit started, Argentina took control.
This has been Argentina’s hallmark over the past three years: with the ever-improving relationship between Messi and the centre-forward Lautaro Martinezand the flourishes in the final third added by Angel Di Maria.
It all proved too much for Italy, who were swept away before half-time. Argentina won the high ball. Lo Celso, as often, found Messi, who turned around Giovanni Di Lorenzo and square for Martinez to slip in. Then Martinez showed his game with his back to goal, slipping Di Maria for a beautifully subtle chip finish on Gianluigi Donnarummawho perhaps should have gotten out of his line quicker.
But it was Donnarumma who kept the score respectable in the second half, helped perhaps by Argentina’s obsession with securing a goal for Messi. The final blow, at the very end, was a Paulo Dybala goal that came from an inadvertent Messi assist.
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Those second-half considerations aside, the great strength of this team is that coach Lionel Scaloni has surrounded Messi with probably the best collective structure of his international career.
Certainly, the defensive unit can still be a cause for concern, despite the dramatic improvements made by Emiliano Martinez in goal and Christian Romero in central defense. His partner Nicolas Otamendi is surely past its best. Italy lacked the pace or talent to provide much of the test, and Sunday’s opponents Estonia are unlikely to prove too difficult.
Worth celebrating, however, are the patterns the team can weave into their possession. In previous cycles, Argentina had a plan A: give the ball to Messi and hope. Plan B was also about giving the ball to Messi and hoping, and there was no plan C. Now, highlighted by their first-ever win at Wembley, they have something much more cohesive and collective.
And the same applies to Brazil and the team’s relationship with Neymar. It’s not just about the PSG star anymore, and not just because Vinicius Junior has become a world-class talent. Brazil have a squad too, which gave coach Tite plenty to look forward to an impressive 5-1 win over South Korea.
Over the past few months, Brazil have been working on offensive variants, and they were all on show in Seoul. The team have become accustomed to using two wingers, Raphinha on the right and Vinicius on the left. But while Vinicius was still recovering from the Champions League final and was only used for the last twenty minutes, Tite returned to an earlier plan. Raphinha kept her place. But on the right he used the versatile midfielder Lucas Paqueta.
It worked wonderfully well. One of Brazil’s first chances came from Paqueta, unmarked as he drifted down the pitch, combining well with Neymar, who could then use the space to drift down the flank. And Paqueta wide created a lane inside for the left-back’s surprise attacking bursts alexander sandro — a key part of Brazil’s first three goals.
For the opener, Alex Sandro reached the boundary line and pulled out for Fred – often seen in the area – to fire a shot that was probably goal-bound before. Richarlison added a finishing touch. And for the other two, Alex Sandro took penalties because again he appeared as an element of surprise.
Brazil pressed high, which made it very difficult for South Korea to force their way onto the pitch and use their speed against the Brazilian defense. Against the run of play, they briefly equalized – Uijo Hwang turning Thiago Silva with surprising ease and great dexterity to plant in a shot at the far post.
There were sporadic moments of Korean threat, as they tried to punch space behind Daniel Alves or run into veteran right-back. Brazil, however, managed to plug the holes, with Fred often showing up at the right time to quell the danger.
And to make Tite’s day complete, the last two goals have come from players the manager has shown confidence in in the face of heavy criticism – Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus came off the bench to round it at 5-1.
They have now played exactly 100 games since that disastrous 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 semi-finals. But with each convincing performance, they put distance between them and historic humiliation, and earned the right to dream of ending 20 years of running in Qatar.
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