You would be hard pushed to find a bigger match in world football over the next few days than the latest chapter in one of the oldest and most fierce rivalries in the sport. Argentina host Uruguay in Mendoza for a World Cup qualifier on Thursday night and with a massive three points at stake, Edgardo Bauza making his debut as La Albiceleste coach, Lionel Messi returning and Uruguay not without problems of their own, it could hardly be anymore intriguing.
The arrival of football on the banks of the Rio de la Plata towards the end of the 19th century rapidly gave birth to this clásico and long before Brazil had come onto the scene as a footballing powerhouse, Argentina and Uruguay were already in the midst of a rivalry which has never diminished.
On Thursday evening, the two old foes meet again in what is already an incredibly tight CONMEBOL qualifying group with Uruguay currently top, just two points clear of Argentina in third.
Argentina began the qualification process dismally but recovered when Messi returned from injury. However, much has happened since then – another Copa América final defeat over the summer prompted Messi’s retirement and subsequently Gerardo Martino’s resignation and all this turmoil has been set to the backdrop of utter chaos at the Argentine Football Association (AFA).
The appointment of Edgardo Bauza and the swift change of heart by Messi bring us back to footballing matters and despite matters off the field being far from resolved, qualification serves as a welcome distraction.
However, victory on Thursday is still required and while Bauza could certainly have had easier opening fixtures, welcoming Lionel Messi into his starting eleven serves as a massive boost.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner will line-up on the right in Edgardo Bauza’s preferred 4-2-3-1 with Ángel Di María on the opposite flank and perhaps two of El Patón’s more surprising selections, Paulo Dybala in the number 10 role and Lucas Pratto leading the line.
The increasingly unpopular Gonzalo Higuaín’s absence and injury to Sergio Agüero will have had a bearing on these selections but many have been calling for Dybala’s inclusion and Bauza will know Pratto’s skill-set well having watched plenty of the 28-year-old at Vélez and more recently when El Patón was in charge of São Paulo and Pratto was a regular scorer for Atlético Mineiro.
Argentina probable XI: Sergio Romero; Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolás Otamendi, Ramiro Funes Mori, Emanuel Más; Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano; Paulo Dybala, Lionel Messi, Ángel Di María; Lucas Pratto
Uruguay will also be wanting to put this summer’s Copa América behind them after injury ruled out Barcelona striker Luis Suárez and La Celeste subsequently crashed out at the group stage following defeats to México and Venezuela.
Prior to this Suárez’s return from international suspension and coincided with an upturn in fortune and Uruguay had snatched top spot in qualifying after a draw away to Brazil and a win over Peru at the end of March. However, just as is the case with Argentina, a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then.
Aside from the disappointment in the United States, coach Óscar Tabárez has been struggling with ill-health after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome and the football association has been locked in dispute with sponsors Puma over a new deal with Nike that even saw some players threatening to quit if the changes weren’t made.
Getting back to World Cup qualification with a fit-again Suárez leading the attack in tandem with Edinson Cavani provides an opportunity for La Celeste to put these negative issues behind them.
Uruguay: Fernando Muslera; José María Giménez, Diego Godín, Jorge Fucile, Gastón Silva; Egidio Arévalo Ríos, Mathías Corujo, Cristian Rodríguez, Carlos Sánchez; Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez
The last time these sides met was at the 2015 Copa América when Sergio Agüero headed the only goal of their group stage encounter but recent results have been even, with a win apiece from the last World Cup qualification (albeit Uruguay’s coming when Argentina had already guaranteed a place in Brazil and were resting players) and La Celeste emerging victorious from the 2011 Copa América meeting.
Since the first clásico in 1901 Argentina have established a firm head-to-advantage with 88 victories to Uruguay’s 59 with 44 draws but Thursday’s clash with be far more than adding an extra notch to this tally.
Victory for Uruguay would take a grip on qualification while for Argentina it could send them top ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Venezuela.