‘This is not a friendly’ is the firm message from both camps as Argentina prepare to face Brazil in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and while that may be true of the heavyweight South American clash there is an added sense of importance to the fixture given the timing for both nations.
With plenty of time before the 2019 Copa América, a tournament that for much of the continent will be a testing ground for embryonic sides beginning another World Cup cycle, it is only really Brazil that have the need for immediate success.
A disappointing World Cup campaign followed a terrific qualification and now Tite must fine-tune things before hosting the Copa América next year.
This is in direct contrast to Argentina, who are still without a permanent coach and in the absence of Lionel Messi and co. are currently bedding in almost an entire new generation.
Probable Argentina XI vs Brazil
Undefeated in three with routine victories over Guatemala and Iraq and a draw against Colombia, interim coach Lionel Scaloni will face his greatest test to date against Brazil and while the 40-year-old may state, “the important thing isn’t the result,” the AFA’s appointment committee will be watching closely.
However short-sighted it might be, a heavy defeat to Brazil would seriously harm Scaloni’s chances while a surprise victory could just install the inexperienced coach as favourite.
There have certainly been positives from Scaloni’s short tenure so far and the former international speaks with the authority of a man looking to convince the AFA. A fresh new, younger squad has been quickly assembled and a clear idea as to how Argentina should play has been evident with Scaloni drilling his side on winning the ball quickly and transitioning forward at pace from the midfield.
Argentina probable XI: Sergio Romero; Renzo Saravia, Germán Pezzella, Nicolás Otamendi, Nicolás Tagliafico; Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo Battaglia, Giovani Lo Celso; Eduardo Salvio, Mauro Icardi, Ángel Correa
That midfield that for years was dominated by the now retired pair of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia will likely be Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo Battaglia and Giovani Lo Celso. Paredes, the cultured, ball playing number five, Battaglia competing with Santiago Ascacibar for the role of destroyer and Lo Celso, aiming to make up for lost time after his inexplicable snub by Jorge Sampaoli in Russia.
After sitting out the 4-0 win over Iraq last week, Lo Celso will start in a much stronger looking engine room to try and combat Brazil and in attack Mauro Icardi will get another opportunity to impress as both players look to be central to Scaloni’s plans.
“I am very well. This time I got in good shape and can train with the group completely, which did not happen during the last call-up,” Icardi said after reporting for the previous international break with an injury.
“We are trying to follow a new project, with many new players, with guys wearing the shirt for the first time to try and create something for the future, to have a base and to create something important.
“Argentina-Brazil is never a friendly match. There is a lot of enthusiasm. During the last international break, we played against Colombia, a great team, but playing with Brazil means a lot more, beyond that, it is not a friendly match on the pitch, it will never be.
“The team is getting ready to aim for something important, which is needed for this cycle,” Icardi stated.
And Icardi too could be important as Argentina are yet to see anything like the centre forward that has been so prolific in Serie A for the past few years. An extended run in the side is required as the Albiceleste look for a long term options after Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín.
Another player to fall into that bracket is Paulo Dybala but the Juventus forward looks set to drop to the bench on Tuesday. A performance against Iraq that again only showed flashes of Dybala’s quality was not enough to convince Scaloni and question marks still hang over where to fit the 24-year-old in.
Relatively ineffective out wide, Scaloni is reportedly set to go with Eduardo Salvio and Angel Correa either side of Icardi and while Dybala improved centrally against Iraq, his inclusion on Tuesday at the expense of one of the midfield three would weaken Argentina defensively.
Brazil possible XI: Alisson; Danilo, Marquinhos, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Casemiro; Fred or Arthur, Renato Augusto; Coutinho, Neymar, Firmino
So while Scaloni wrestles with a myriad of dilemmas, his opposing number Tite has a relatively simple task. Richarlison may start in attack with Gabriel Jesus and Neymar which in turn could force a reshuffle to keep Philippe Coutinho in midfield but otherwise it is a Brazil side with plenty of experience and familiarity with their coach.
With that comes pressure and Tite has questions to answer post-Russia ahead of a Copa América that Brazil must win on home soil. However, the Seleção are heavy favourites to inflict a first defeat as interim coach on Lionel Scaloni.
Depending on which matches are counted as official, Tuesday’s meeting is widely recognised as the 100th between Argentina and Brazil and with both having won 37, victory will bring superiority.
Argentina haven’t won back-to-back clásicos in 55 years but have the chance to do that following victory over Brazil in Australia last June. Given that win came in Jorge Sampaoli’s debut and proved to be a false dawn for Argentina perhaps little should be read into Tuesday’s result.
But this is South American football, this is Argentina versus Brazil so the chances of that are slim to none.
Argentina must tighten their defense and look to inflict damage on the counter attack. Otamendi has never been very good playing for Argentina and remains a question mark in defense. Even a draw against a full strength Brazil would be considered an achievement.