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 midfield presenter Leandro Paredes took away some of the fluidity of their passing – Guido Rodriguez was an unstable, more defensive substitute. But once the overtaking circuit started, Argentina took control.
Italy could never get a hold of Giovani Lo Celso and, together with Rodrigo De Paul, they started to bring Lionel Messi into the game in areas of the pitch where he could hurt the Italian defence.
This has been Argentina’s hallmark over the past three years: with the steadily improving relationship between Messi and centre-forward Lautaro Martinez, and 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 so often, found Messi, who turned a straight back on Giovanni Di Lorenzo and made Martinez slip into it. were faster on his line.
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, right at the 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.
Admittedly, the defensive unit can still be a cause for concern, despite the dramatic improvements made by Emiliano Martinez in goal and Christian Romero at centre-back. His partner Nicolas Otamendi has surely exceeded his best level. 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 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 largely created an inside lane for left-back Alex Sandro’s surprise attacking bursts – a key part of Brazil’s opening three goals.
For the opener, Alex Sandro reached the goal line and ducked back for Fred – often seen in the area – to fire a shot that was likely goal-bound before Richarlison gave 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 were briefly level – Uijo Hwang turning in Thiago Silva with surprising ease and dexterity to plant 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 came from players the manager showed faith in in the face of heavy criticism – Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus came off the bench to finish 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.