Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho
On Wednesday, November 17, 2010, football supporters worldwide will be watching the international friendly between Brazil and Argentina. For South Americans, there is no bigger matchup. Since 1993, Brazil has had the upper hand for the most part: two World Cup titles, four Copa America victories, and three Confederation's Cup trophies are among the list of accolades Brazil has won over the past 17 years. This is not to say Argentina has been weak during this time, but for many of these tournaments, Argentina fell victim to Brazil in three of those tournaments, at the finals.
For the past two World Cups, both teams have gotten as far as the quarterfinals. In similar fashion, both teams replaced head coaches after the World Cup, but the strategies employed by both teams diverge tremendously, and it is reflected in the most recent selections for this upcoming friendly.
Current Head Coach, Mano Menezes has essentially taken a different path than what prior coach Dunga had done with the Seleção. While Dunga relied on many veterans and fielded an older, counter-attacking team, Menezes has been putting together sides that have many players in their early 20s, some even in their teens. While the results have been favorable thus far, the first real test will be when Menezes' boys face an Argentinian side that is strictly focused on the 2011 Copa America. Recent lineups have included Ramires, Nilmar, Robinho and Dani Alves as "veterans." The rest of the team include players that Menezes has coached from prior stints at Gremio and Corinthians and several other young rising stars that may not be ready for the Copa America relative to other players, but will have significant experience by the time the 2014 World Cup arrives.
Nowhere to be found, players like Maicon, Julio Cesar, Luis Fabiano, Lucio and Juan have yet to receive a call-up by the new head coach. Many supporters were expecting a mix of youth and experience to converge at some point before the Copa America, but in this case, the only player of yester-year that received a call-up was Ronaldinho. Many view this as a probable going-away game for the 30-year old. Or perhaps it was a business decision to help get more TV rights and help boost attendance for this rivalry. The call-up of Ronaldinho is definitely inconsistent with the several other veterans that have been excluded in recent memory, but it will be nostalgic to see him don the yellow shirt once again.
From the perspective of many though, it is time to move on from Ronaldinho and let players like Coutinho, Hernanes, and Ganso run the midfield. Of these three, only Coutinho has been called up for this game. Ganso is still out due to injury while Hernanes' exclusion is unexplainable, especially given his form this year at Lazio. The rest of the midfield is comprised of several midfielders under 25 years old such as Lucas, Sandro, Ramires, Elias and Jucilei. Douglas is the eldest of the bunch at 28 years old. For the match, Lucas and Ramires will start as the holding midfielders with Coutinho and Ronaldinho as the attacking midfielders.
In the defense, there are no major surprises, as the same defenders from the prior friendlies will appear again. The newest addition to the squad is Manchester United's Rafael. The starting backline will most likely be once again Dani Alves and Andre Santos on the flanks with David Luiz and Thiago Silva in the middle.
At the front of the attack, the forwards include Robinho, André and Neymar. Neymar returns after being left off the team last month due to discipline problems at the club level. Before his recent injury, Alexandre Pato was the most in-form striker at the National Team level. Unfortunately a recent hamstring injury will prevent Pato from playing this week. Most likely, Robinho and Neymar will start up front. The relatively unknown André may get some minutes too, but only if Brazil needs the additional firepower up front.
Brazil's advantages going into this game are two-fold. First off, Brazil does not have anything to prove. This game best serves as a gauge to see how the young squad has progressed thus far. Should Brazil lose this game, there will be no pressure to question Menezes' tactics nor will there be the usual banter of "I hope I never see XYZ on the national team again." The worst that can happen is that Menezes can call up and try out some new players and let some of the youngsters develop more confidence and experience at the club level before returning back to the National Team. In contrast, the Argentines have an alternate strategy going into this match.
Where to even begin with Argentina? The last trophy Argentina has won was the 1993 Copa America (Olympics do not count). Over the years, one could make the argument Argentina puts together one of the most entertaining sides to watch - unfortunately most entertaining does not always mean title-winning. Just as an example, the 2007 Copa America was expected to be won by Argentina. Brazil fielded a B-team and the Argentines had Juan Roman Riquelme who arguably was the best player in the world during 2007. Argentina steam rolls into the finals only to be upset by Brazil 3-0. With the upcoming Copa America in their backyard next summer, there is no margin for error, so Argentina will look to bring experienced players who have been around the block.
Due to the mess Maradona made as head coach, Sergio Batista has been put in charge. Batista, already has had a few games under his belt but his approach with the national team is quite different from Menezes. Despite the fact that Argentina has been known as a football factory for young talent, there are hardly any new faces on the team. Players like Burdisso, Heinze, Demichelis, Cambiasso, both Milito brothers and even legendary Javier Zanetti have been called up by Batista since the World Cup. All these players are either in their early 30's or late 20's and have begun to show that time is catching up to them. Zanetti is currently 37 and still is the best option Argentina has at the RB/LB position (most countries would still call on Zanetti if they were able to).
For the match against Brazil, do not be suprised to see Zanetti and Heinze as the fullbacks with Demichelis and possibly Burdisso anchoring the middle of the defense. Sad to say, two of the younger defenders are Nicolás Pareja and Pablo Zabaleta, who are both 26 and 25, respectively. Both have less than ten caps combined at the international level. One would think, two defenders in their mid 20's would already have each accumulated at least 15 caps by this time. Tragically, Walter Samuel recently went down for the rest of the season due to a serious knee injury. In his place, 22 year old Nicolás Otamendi was called up to replace him, but he has yet to make an impact with his new club, FC Porto.
In the midfield, there are no big surprises here as we will see once again players like Mario Bolatti, Javier Mascherano, Andrés D'Alessandro, Ángel di Maria, Ever Banega and Javier Pastore. Banega and Pastore are the two youngest players of the bunch but have played in several games already under Batista. Pastore is quickly becoming a household name for Palermo this season, but he has not been utilized properly by either Batista or Maradona.
If Batista plays Pastore along with deep playmaker Banega and the ball-winning Mascherano, Argentina may have found the long term solution to the midfield problem that has existed since Juan Roman Riquelme left the international scene.
Other role players in the midfield include Jose Sosa, Lucas Biglia and Nicolás Gaitán. Do not expect to see too much from these three.
Up front, there is nothing to question as Argentina is sticking with Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Diego Milito and Ezequiel Lavezzi. While no country can claim they have a better group of forwards, without the right midfield, it is a waste of talent up front. Of these strikers, perhaps Milito is probably is the weakest of the bunch. It would not hurt Batista to try out someone like Eduardo Salvio who has more long term potential or call up another midfielder like Dario Conca who has been creating quite a stir in Brazil while playing for Fluminese (yes, there are Argentines who play in Brazil).
While Brazil has many players who have yet to play in a big tournament at the senior international level, Argentina has veterans who have appeared in World Cups going back to 1998 and who have played in several Copa America tournaments. Batista, kind of like Dunga, has decided to stick with a veteran-based roster, while incorporating new talent such as Pastore and Banega, albeit at a slow pace. Who knows if many of the elder veterans will see the blue and white shirt after the Copa America, but Argentina cannot risk going to the Copa America with defenders who have little experience, so they have to go with players who have played at the highest levels.
Despite the different approaches Argentina and Brazil have employed, both teams will be looking to win on Wednesday. If Argentina wins, it will be almost expected, but will show that Batista is on the right track for the Copa America. If Brazil wins, they will be ahead of the curve and well on their way in their preparations for the 2014 World Cup. If Brazil loses, it really will not be a big deal - the 150 million coaches, I mean supporters, in Brazil will not call for Menezes' head like they constantly did when Dunga was in charge. Should Argentina lose, the pressure will be on Batista to re-evaluate his tactics. Nevertheless, fans worldwide will be the ultimate winner as the world will get to see the likes of Messi, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Tevez, Neymar and many other world class stars on the pitch at the same time.