Football

Brazil, Argentina look like World Cup contenders again

Brazil is about to overtake top spot in the FIFA rankings and Argentina hasn’t lost a single match in 1,000 days. It’s clear the two South American soccer powers have more than just Neymar and Lionel Messi going for them as they head to the World Cup in Qatar hoping to end 20 years of European domination.

Both teams flopped in Russia in 2018, with Argentina losing to eventual champion France in the round of 16 and Brazil going out against Belgium in the quarterfinals. But they’re looking formidable again now, each with a deep squad, well-respected coach and a superstar forward capable of deciding games on his own.

Brazil has already broken the points record in South American qualifying with 45, six points ahead of second-place Argentina even before the two meet for a final game that was suspended last year. Argentina, though, lifted the Copa America title in 2021 by beating Brazil 1-0 in the final, handing Messi his first major trophy with the national team.

Messi and Neymar always face enormous pressure at the World Cup, but the two teams are trying to be less dependent on their superstars going into this year’s tournament in Qatar. Brazil has found a midfield bedrock in Lucas Paqueta and an aggressive striker in Vinicius Jr. to take some pressure off Neymar. Argentina has transformed Rodrigo de Paul into a key player to protect Messi and also get the best out of winger Lautaro Martinez.

Even with a team filled with backups, Brazil routed Bolivia 4-0 on Tuesday in the altitude of La Paz. “The feeling I have now is of peace,” Brazil coach Tite said.

One advantage that Tite has over his rival Lionel Scaloni is more flexibility with his lineup. He has played Neymar as a center forward, Paqueta as a box-to-box player with Philippe Coutinho as an playmaker and found good and young options up front in Raphinha, Antony, Rodrygo and Matheus Cunha.

Tite also saw the recent rise of midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, who could challenge Fred for a position in the starting lineup. Argentina has fewer options on the bench, but is undefeated in its last 31 matches. It has also found a trustworthy goalkeeper in Emiliano Martinez and an energetic midfielder in Leandro Paredes, another player who helps Messi play at his best.

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“South American qualifiers are very hard and this team adapted to everything,“ Scaloni said after Argentina’s 1-1 draw at Ecuador. The doubts surrounding the two teams mostly stem from their lack of experience playing European teams. The last time for both was in 2019, when Brazil topped the Czech Republic 3-1 and Argentina drew 2-2 with Germany. Then the pandemic began, the calendar got squeezed and travel for games was restricted.

There are also some questions about the two coaches, despite the impressive results in recent years. Can Tite learn from the previous World Cup and make changes more quickly? He admitted that was one of his flaws in Russia. How will Scaloni fare coaching at a World Cup for the first time _ especially knowing it could be Messi’s last major tournament? Last week, the 34-year-old star raised the possibility of retirement after Qatar.

They will find out their group opponents in Friday’s World Cup draw, which should provide a better picture of their chances for success.

“We will keep an eye the best way we can and study the teams that will be in our group,” Brazil’s Richarlison said. “We need to focus on the friendlies we have left and prepare well because we have it all to play a great tournament.”

Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi is also optimistic his team can do better than four years ago. “We are going to the World Cup hoping we can reach the final,” he said.

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