FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s weekend will be full as he’ll be in Rio de Janeiro for Saturday’s Copa America final between Argentina and Brazil before charging across the Atlantic to London for Sunday’s decider of Euro 2020 between England and Italy (watch the Euro final at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN in the U.S.).
There is a case to be made that the first game is the bigger of the two. All through these past few weeks it has been all but impossible for South America’s championship to compete with its European counterpart — until now. At this point the empty stadiums and bizarre format of the Copa hardly matter — because it all boils down to the purest football rivalry on the planet.
There is no real military or colonial beef between Brazil and Argentina. It is a contest of the two countries that can proudly boast to have produced the finest players in the history of the global game. It is as pure as boxing — though hopefully without bloodshed — which is why we bring you a tale of the tape on the two teams.
Brazil coach Tite has a decision to make. Alisson is no longer the undisputed first choice. He is now seen as being on the same level as Ederson, with Weverton of Palmeiras also putting in a challenge. Tite has been rotating the strike. Ederson was given both knock-out matches — taken by some as evidence that he now has his nose in front. It could be, though, that Tite did this while promising the final to Alisson.
Either way, it is a lovely problem to have. Brazil are exceptionally well served — but they no longer have the advantage over Argentina that seemed to be the case just a few weeks ago.
It has been some time since Argentina had a top class keeper. Coach Lionel Scaloni has used eight since the 2018 World Cup in Russia — and the last of them appears to have solved the problem. Emiliano Martinez of Aston Villa only made his debut at the start of June. But he has already made the position his own, and his heroics in the semifinal shootout should fill him with confidence.
Brazil’s defensive unit has been performing extremely well — adding up the current set of World Cup qualifiers and the Copa, they have conceded just four goals in 12 competitive games. But here, too, Tite has a decision to make — and this one looks important. Danilo will play a conservative role at right-back. Renan Lodi will be more adventurous at left-back, though he could come under pressure for his place if the more physical Alex Sandro makes a full recovery from injury. The magnificent Marquinhos — so good that he can often go unnoticed — will be at centre-back.
But who will partner him? The plan for next year’s World Cup is to pair him with Eder Militao, especially now he is getting more game time at Real Madrid. Should that happen now? This is a key call. Thiago Silva is a wonderful defender. But he is approaching 37, and has inevitably lost some of his pace. Chelsea use him in the middle of a back three, protecting him with the speed of Antonio Rudiger. In open space he is now more vulnerable — Peru‘s Gianluca Lapadula turned inside him with ease to get in a prime shooting position in the semifinal. Moreover, Brazil have been less able to press the opposition when Thiago Silva has played.
Against Argentina’s circuit of midfield passing, this could be important. Militao looks the more logical choice for this clash, but it would be a big decision. Whatever Brazil decide, this is one area where they would seem to have a clear advantage. A dearth of top-class defenders has cursed Argentina in recent times. There are high hopes of centre-back Cristian Romero, but injury has kept him out of the last three games.
German Pezzella will probably partner with Nicolas Otamendi at the heart of the defence, leaving Argentina vulnerable to pace and candidates to concede free kicks close to goal. Attempting to protect the defence may well have an influence on how Argentina line up in midfield.
Ale Moreno explains how Brazil was able to defeat Peru in the Copa America semifinal and looks ahead to the title match.
The Brazil midfield would seem to pick itself. It is highly unlikely that Tite will go with his 4-4-2 system, using strikers as wide midfielders and risking having his pair in the centre outnumbered. Midfield passing is one of Argentina’s big strengths, and so the classy Casemiro and the busy Fred will surely be joined by the versatile and talented Lucas Paqueta, scorer of both Brazil’s goals in the knock-out stages. Paqueta will make the extra man in midfield, will link up with Neymar and will also be expected to get into the opposing penalty area.
Scaloni, meanwhile, has a big decision to take. His base formation has been 4-3-3, Leandro Paredes anchoring in between Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso. It is a trio made to measure to pass the ball, and has got the team off to a fast start in all of their games. But there is no natural defensive midfielder in the mix, which has opened up space for Guido Rodriguez to come in. In the semifinal he started ahead of Parades.
But Scaloni could play them both. His alternative formation, often used towards the end of matches, is a 4-4-2. With an eye on Brazil’s attacking power, he may be tempted to start with it on Saturday, sacrificing left winger Nicolas Gonzalez for the inclusion of the extra midfielder. This is probably the biggest decision faced by Argentina’s coach before the game.
Tite makes it very clear that in possession his side is constructed around Neymar. He wants his striker to be both bow and arrow, with freedom to roam. This has meant that Richarlison has to put in a double shift. At times he gets into the centre-forward position, but he also has to work back down the flank in defence, allowing Neymar to stay upfield. Recent games have featured Everton Soares of Benfica on the other wing, but he has not reproduced his 2019 Copa form.
With Gabriel Jesus suspended for his flying kick red card against Peru, it could be time to unleash Vinicius Junior. The Real Madrid winger has hardly featured, but his pace would certainly be useful against the Argentina defence. Following this thinking, the options off the bench would be Roberto Firmino and Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa, central strikers who could bolster the attack if Brazil are chasing the game.
After a slow start Argentina’s centre-forward Lautaro Martinez has found form, and is also forging a better understanding with Lionel Messi, and he will keep Sergio Aguero on the bench. Should Scaloni stick with 4-3-3 then Gonzalez on the left wing is busy, and surprisingly good in the air, while Alejandro Gomez did well — and scored — in both games he played. Angel Di Maria has been a fine impact substitute, and could even be a candidate to start if Scaloni seeks to attack the space behind Renan Lodi.
But if the Brazil attack revolves around Neymar, the same is at least as true of Messi with Argentina.
NEYMAR AND MESSI
The only time Brazil have failed to win in the competition is when Neymar was rested for the 1-1 draw with Ecuador. There is a lot of talk of Neymar-dependence. Tite may have cause to remind his side that last November they beat Venezuela and won away to Uruguay without their No. 10 — who, of course, had to sit out the 2019 Copa after picking up an injury. This is an important stage on the way to 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which looks like being the defining moment of Neymar’s international career.
It is hard to believe that by then he will be nearly 31 — the age of Pele’s retirement from international football. There are still question marks about Neymar’s maturity under pressure. As Brazil fought to come from behind in the group phase against Colombia, he was showing those familiar signs of the frustration that can sometimes have a negative effect on his performance. At full throttle, though he is irresistible — and Argentina lack a marking midfielder as good as Colombia’s Wilmar Barrios.
But if there is plenty at stake for Neymar, there is much more for Messi, who turned 34 during the tournament and is running out of chances. He has been in magnificent form. This is the moment in his career when Argentina seems to matter to him more than Barcelona.
He appears fully integrated into the team in both a footballing and human sense, and has been involved in all 11 goals Argentina have scored in the competition — scoring four, setting up five and giving the pass for the assist for the other two.
What happens in the Maracana is going to have a huge effect on bar room disputes all over the planet: Rip it up and take Argentina to the trophy and the argument that he is the greatest of all-time gains some more ammunition. Descend into anonymity while Brazil retain the title and the barbs are already waiting.
The last game that Argentina lost came two years ago — in Brazil, to Brazil, in the semifinals of the 2019 Copa. There was some controversy about the refereeing, but the outcome was entirely predictable. Argentina were picked off on the break.
They are much more of a team now. The gap between the two sides has narrowed. Has it closed? Two factors would seem to tip the balance Brazil’s way. For all Argentina’s improvement, Brazil still seem to have the better balance between attack and defence. And for all the impressive patterns of Argentina’s midfield play, they appear unable to sustain it and as a result spend more of their matches under pressure.
On the other hand, Messi has been the outstanding player. Only the bitter would begrudge him a trophy, but he is going to have to earn it, because Brazil are the (narrow) favourites.