The journeys of Argentina and Brazil throughout the 2014 World Cup promise to be two of the most tantalising prospects for the upcoming competition. The hosts and their South American neighbours are playing on home turf for the first time since 1978, and confidence in both camps could not be higher.
But come the final at the Maracana just under 12 months from now, which continental powerhouse is most likely to be celebrating victory in football's most important tournament? For this writer, it is Lionel Messi and not Neymar who has the better chance of taking glory and becoming an all-time hero for his nation.
Both teams have improved immeasurably since the 2010 World Cup—and especially looking back to 2011 when Argentina and Brazil were unceremoniously ejected from the Copa America at the quarter-final stage. The wonderfully exciting Colombia may have something to say about it, but the pair have arguably regained their positions as the most powerful nations in South American football.
While Brazil—in spite of an excellent victory at the Confederations Cup earlier this year—are still trying to find their way under veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Argentine team is a much more settled, unified outfit. Alejandro Sabella took over a talented but disparate, confused group of players two years ago, and the former Estudiantes coach moulded them into a team.
The Albiceleste of 2013 are almost unrecognisable from that of Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista. Barring some inevitable, healthy competition for the forward positions, Sabella's team and system read almost from memory. In a team which oozes talent from the midfield forward, that was always going to be half the battle for any national coach; and the results have been spectacular.
With three games remaining of the notoriously difficult South American qualifying competition, the Albiceleste sit on top already assured of at least a playoff place.
If Uruguay fail to win their next clash—a tough home meeting with Colombia—the team will book its tickets to Brazil 2014 without the need to kick another ball. Messi's excellent contribution, with eight goals so far, was to be expected, but the way other stars have stepped up has been infinitely encouraging for Argentina fans.
There are players such as Gonzalo Higuain, whose nine goals put him at the top of the scoring charts, while Angel Di Maria—the link between attack and midfield—has wreaked havoc with his strong bursts down the left.
Then there are Sergio Aguero, Fernando Gago and Ezequiel Garay—the list of talents who have stood up to be counted is testament both to their love of the shirt and also Sabella's gifts both tactically and as a motivator.
Even without Messi, as the side demonstrated in a 2-1 victory away to Italy in August, Argentina can now feel confident of taking on the world's best and coming out on top.
Nothing is assured still. Brazil will be a formidable prospect on home soil, and with the likes of Neymar, Oscar, Lucas Moura and new discovery Bernard looking for glory, they will be still be the team to beat. In defence as well, their brilliant back four outstrips any that Argentina can put on the field.
But as a team, it is the Albiceleste who hold the advantage. With the best player in the world calling the shots and driving his team forward, Argentina right now hold a slight edge over their archrivals to the north just under a year from the big kickoff.
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