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50 days to the World Cup: can Messi's Argentina or Neymar's Brazil win the World Cup?

Neymar #10 of Brazil and Messi #10 of Argentina battle for the ball during a match between Brazil and Argentina as part 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier at Mineirao stadium on November 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

With just 50 days left until the big kick-off in Russia, AIPS' Martin Mazur, from Argentina, and Samindra Kunti, a longtime Brazil observer, assess the chances of South America's two traditional powerhouses at this summer's World Cup. For both countries, the last World Cup was devastating, in different ways. Have Brazil and Argentina recovered and can they muster a challenge? Martin and Sam, who have both written for The Blizzard and FourFourTwo among others, explain.

How did Argentina and Brazil fare in the World Cup qualifiers?

Martin: It was one of the most traumatic experiences of this century, even worse than the troubled road to South Africa, with Maradona as coach. Argentina lost the plot, the lead and ended up on the verge of not even qualifying for the play-off. They lost points at home against Ecuador (first-ever home defeat), Paraguay, Venezuela and Peru. Taking into account the home and away matches, they could not beat Brazil, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, something that had never happened before. With the pressure at its peak, they ended up changing the Estadio Monumental for La Bombonera, trying to get a more intense atmosphere to win games. “The fear of not qualifying made us block”, admitted Messi after Argentina sealed qualification in the last game, against an Ecuador B side.

It was also a tale of three coaches, Martino, Bauza and Sampaoli. In these qualifiers, Argentina had as many managers as the period between 1974 and 1994. Worse, the styles of Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli could not be more dissimilar. From control and possession to sitting back and counter-attacking, to a vertiginous over-attacking, confusion was part of Argentina’s plot. Tactical systems were constantly changed, so did players. Sampaoli alone called up 43 footballers and deployed six tactical systems in his seven months at the helm.

Sam: The sequel to the 7-1 was irrational. The Brazilian FA re-appointed Dunga, reverting to type and outdated coaching when circumstances demanded radical change and fresh ideas. The decision was also telling of Brazil’s football culture: the 7-1 was an anomaly, it wouldn’t happen again and no lessons could be learned. There simply was no project of renovation. Under Dunga, things went from bad to worse. Brazil reached their lowest ebb in living memory, and that's including the 7-1. At the 2015 Copa America, Dunga played six defenders at one point against Venezuela to protect the result. He was averse to the notion that you can play expansive, passing football. His sustained need for conflict with the press and the fans didn’t help him either. At the 2016 Copa America Brazil crashed out in the first round. His time was up.

In came, Tite, Brazilian football’s most progressive coach. He moved the defensive line higher up the pitch, introduced Casemiro in the midfielder, used Paulinho as his shuttler and relied on the pace and daring of Gabriel Jesus up front. Brazil were flying. What’s more, they played modern, compact football. Tite was King Midas and Brazil cruised through the qualifiers with notably impressive wins against Argentina 3-0 at home and Uruguay away 1-4.

Are Argentina and Brazil too dependent on their star player?

Martin: If there’s something new about Messi is that Argentina have never been more dependent on him than now. In the previous three World Cups, the questions raised were mainly a comparison between Argentina’s Messi and Barcelona’s Messi. But this last period showed that Argentina is barely a decent side without their captain. The stats show it clearly: with Messi, Argentina won 70% of the points in the qualifiers; without Messi, only 29%.

Sam: 'Neymar dependencia?' Yes, it is still there, but a little less so. He is undoubtedly Brazil’s marquee player and Tite will count on him in Russia, to deliver that bit of extra for Brazil. In the last two friendlies against Russia and Germany, the team played without their injured star and they availed themselves well, with 0-3 and 0-1 wins respectively. The Germany win was symbolic, but showed that Brazil can go toe-to-toe with the best without their talisman. In the past, in particular against England and Japan last November, Neymar has proven to be petulant, ill-disciplined and selfish at times. That is a worry for Tite: can he keep his player in line when the pressure will mount?

What is the Achilles heel of the team?

Martin: There’s not just one. But considering Sampaoli’s brief era, Argentina have shown a tendency for losing order, players going forward for the sake of high-pressing, but not being able to cover spaces in counter-attacks. “The unlimited desire to win”, as the manager has put it, sometimes is better described as a naive approach without defending. There are no longer superheroes like Mascherano in Brazil 2014. Having lost speed and continuity, playing as central defender at club level, the anchorman is no longer the defensive compass of the team. Argentina have not managed to come up with a replacement.

Sam: Brazil’s weakness are the full-backs Marcelo and Daniel Alves. They have a strong propensity to go forward and leave acres of space in behind. Opponents will definitely try and exploit that space. Tite has acknowledged the problem, in particular against stronger teams. Against Germany, he reinforced his midfield with Fernandinho to provide extra cover. The Manchester City player wasn’t a starter during the World Cup qualifiers, but he may well be in Russia when it matters. That’s ironic of course, given his disastrous performance in Belo Horizonte four years ago. There is another danger lurking around the corner - Brazil are among the favourites to win. It’s all gone so well under Tite that one wonders if it would not have been better for Brazil to have lost their last game against Germany?

Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany hugs Lionel Messi of Argentina after Germany's 1-0 victory in extra time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina at Maracana on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

How have Argentina and Brazil dealt with the trauma of the last World Cup, 7-1 and losing a final?

Martin: Losing the World Cup final could have been a blow for any national team, but Argentina have lost two more finals since that night at Maracaná, and that is the real, unsolved trauma: Copa America 2015 and Copa América Centenario 2016 slipped away, both against Chile, both on penalties, both without scoring a goal. Therefore, the pressure to perform in finals has increased. Argentina’s last won final was in 1993. Since then, they’ve lost a World Cup, four Copa Americas and two Confederations Cup finals. Pressure? A complete generation of players is now on the brink: Messi is the first one that admitted that, if Argentina don’t win in Russia, he will have no choice but to quit international football. It will hardly happen to him, but the future will be considerably darker for Romero, Mascherano, Di Maria, Banega, Biglia, Aguero or Higuain.

Sam: Can you ever recover from a 7-1 defeat, on home soil during a World Cup semi-final? That was the most astounding result ever in World Cup history. The capitulation was so graphic, and so damning for Brazilian football. The game will never be erased, but, as Carlos Alberto Parreira told me, only Brazil, only a country as strong as Brazil, could have recovered from such a result in such a short time. There is truth in that, but perhaps also some arrogance. What matters most is that Tite is a coach who thinks about the game. That’s a very rare quality in Brazil football, which is often very conservative for a number of reasons.

With 50 days left, can Argentina or Brazil win the World Cup?

Martin: Of course they can. With Messi, everything is possible. But if a handbook of “how to win a World Cup” would be written, Argentina’s road to Russia would have been the exact opposite of what needs to be done. The challenge is to switch four years of institutional chaos into one month of football brilliance. And having the best player in the world can certainly help.

Sam: Brazil are among the favourites. They should breeze through to the quarter-finals. Tite has restored Brazil in its former glory. The problem is that Brazil haven’t faced real challenges. You can’t draw too many conclusions from a friendly win against Germany. In Montevideo, during the World Cup qualifiers, they fell behind for the first time, the test of any team. Brazil responded wonderfully well, running out 1-4 winners. The truth is that the South American qualifiers weren’t of a very high level this time, as shown by Argentina’s many problems. It’s a contradiction, but for Brazil things have gone almost too well.

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