South American rivals Brazil and Argentina go head-to-head in a crunch World Cup qualification clash at the Mineirao in Belo Horizonte this week (11.45pm Thursday).
With 10 of the 18 scheduled matches having already been completed, Brazil currently find themselves at the summit of the standings with 21 points from the 30 available so far. Given that the top four countries automatically go forward to Russia in 2018, the 2014 World Cup hosts are in an excellent position at present. The side that finishes fifth will face a two-legged play-off against the winners of the Oceania section, which will almost certainly be New Zealand.
The gap separating Brazil from seventh spot is only six points, though, so there is still plenty of work to be done before Brazil can think about booking their flights to Moscow. Nevertheless, four consecutive wins under new coach Tite has helped to lift the mood in the nation after an embarrassing group stage exit at the Copa America Centenario in the summer. Many Brazilian football fans are confident that they now have the right man in charge of the Selecao after Dunga’s ill-fated second spell at the helm.
Argentina’s position is altogether more perilous, with the two-time world champions currently in sixth place with a points return of 16 from their 10 encounters. Things got even worse for Argentina in the past few days, when Bolivia’s 0-0 draw with Chile in September was chalked off and replaced by a 3-0 Chilean victory. That happened after Nelson Cabrera, who appeared in the match as a second-half substitute for Bolivia, was deemed to be ineligible by FIFA.
That judgment saw the Copa America holders climb above Argentina in the table, with Edgardo Bauza’s charges now outside of the qualification spots ahead of their meeting with Brazil. A run of three matches without a single victory – the stretch encompasses 2-2 draws with Venezuela and Peru and a 1-0 defeat by Paraguay – means there is a great deal of pressure on the Argentinians as the final third of the campaign approaches.
Brazil’s 24-man squad includes Premier League stars Roberto Firmino, Willian, Philippe Coutinho and Fernandinho. There are also Barcelona’s Neymar, Bayern Munich winger Douglas Costa, Real Madrid left-back Marcelo, Juventus’ Dani Alves and Paris Saint-Germain central defender Thiago Silva. Holding midfielder Casemiro has been called up but is likely to miss the Argentina clash through injury, with Rodrigo Caio a potential alternative in the engine room. Brazil will probably set themselves up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Neymar and Gabriel Jesus set to be joined in the front three by either Coutinho or Willian.
Argentina’s group features England-based players Sergio Romero, Ramiro Funes Mori, Nicolas Otamendi, Pablo Zabaleta and Sergio Aguero (pictured). Barcelona duo Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel Di Maria, Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain and talented Atletico Madrid youngster Angel Correa are also included.
Argentina will line up in a 4-2-3-1 configuration, with Higuain and Aguero vying for the centre-forward role and Messi set to play as part of the attacking band of three in behind. Mascherano will be essential at the base of midfield, particularly as Argentina’s backline has looked rather vulnerable in recent fixtures.
The betting tips’ verdict of this preview is to expect a narrow Brazil victory when the two biggest countries in South America lock horns on Thursday night. Tite’s men are simply in better form at present and look to have discovered a balance and coherence which was largely absent under Dunga. Argentina have thus far failed to create a collective unit which is equal to the sum of its parts. A 2-1 home win is the likely margin of victory, with Gabriel Jesus an astute choice for first goalscorer.