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Why Argentina and Brazil look like title contenders for the World Cup in Qatar

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Twenty years have passed since South America last won a World Cup. The evidence from the continent’s recent set of qualifiers is that Brazil and Argentina are shaping up to be strong contenders in Qatar, and this impression has been emphatically confirmed by their first warm-up meetings 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 fortunate that the margin between the sides was not greater. The match was a synthesis of the extraordinary progress Argentina have made since the last World Cup, and especially since the 2019 Copa America when, 32 games ago, they suffered their last defeat.

They had to fight for the right to play, and the absence of midfield anchorman Leandro Paredes took away some of the fluency of their passing – Guido Rodriguez was an unsteady, more defensively minded replacement. But once the circuit of passing got going, Argentina took control.

Italy could never get the flu on Giovani Lo Celso and, together with Rodrigo De Paul, they began to bring Lionel Messi into the game in areas of the field where he could hurt the Italian defense.

This has been the hallmark of Argentina over the past three years: together with the ever-improving relationship between Messi and center forward Lautaro Martinez, and the flourishes in the final third added by Angel Di Maria.

All of this proved too much for Italy, who were swept away before half time. Argentina won the ball high. Lo Celso, as so often, found Messi, who turned right back Giovanni Di Lorenzo and squared for Martinez to slide in. Then Martinez showed his back to goal game, slipping Di Maria for a splendidly subtle chip finish over Gianluigi Donnarumma, who should perhaps have been quicker off his line.

But it was Donnarumma who kept the score respectable in the second half, aided perhaps by Argentina’s obsession with getting 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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Such 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.

True, the defensive unit may still be a cause for concern, despite the dramatic improvements brought about by Emiliano Martinez in goal and Christian Romero at center-back. His partner Nicolas Otamendi is surely past his best. Italy lacked the pace or talent to provide much of a test, and it is unlikely that Estonia, Sunday’s opponent, will prove too challenging.

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To be celebrated, though, are the patterns the team can weave in possession. In previous cycles Argentina had a Plan A: give the ball to Messi and hope. Plan B was also given the ball to Messi and hope, and there was no Plan C. Now, highlighted by their first ever win at Wembley, they have something far more coherent and collective.

And much the same applies to Brazil and the team’s relationship with Neymar. It is no longer all about the PSG star – and not just because Vinicius Junior has emerged as a world class talent. Brazil, too, have a team, which gave coach Tite many reasons to enthuse about an impressive 5-1 win away to South Korea.

Over the last few months Brazil have worked on attacking variations, and they were all on show in Seoul. The team has become accustomed to using two wingers, Raphinha on the right and Vinicius on the left. But with Vinicius still recovering from the Champions League final, and only used for the last twenty minutes, Tite went back to a previous plan. Raphinha kept his place. But on the right he used versatile midfielder Lucas Paqueta.

This worked wonderfully well. One of Brazil’s first chances came from Paqueta, unmarked as he drifted infield, combining well with Neymar, who could then use the space to drift to the flank. And Paqueta wide created a corridor inside for the surprise attacking bursts of left back Alex Sandro – a key part of Brazil’s first three goals.

For the opener, Alex Sandro reached the byline and pulled back for Fred – often seen in the area – to hot a shot that was probably goal-bound before Richarlison gave a final touch. And for the other two, Alex Sandro was brought down for penalties as again he appeared as an element of surprise.

Brazil pressed high, making it very hard for South Korea to play their way up the field and use their speed against the Brazil defense. Against the run of play they were briefly level – Uijo Hwang turning Thiago Silva with surprising ease and great dexterity to plant in a shot off the far post.

There were sporadic moments of Korean threat, as they tried to hit the space behind Daniel Alves or run at the veteran right back. Brazil, though, managed to plug the holes, with Fred often turning up at the right time to snuff out the danger.

And to make Tite’s day complete, the last two goals came from players in whom the coach has shown faith in the face of loud criticism – Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus came off the bench to round it off at 5-1.

They have now played exactly 100 games since that disastrous 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 semifinal. But with every convincing performance they put distance between themselves and a historic humiliation, and have earned the right to dream of ending a 20-year dry run in Qatar.

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