ARGENTINA is in danger of not qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the just the second time ever, but if tonight was any indication they should be safe.
‘La Albiceleste’ secured a deserved 1-0 win via a goal from unfussy stopper Gabriel Mercado, but it was the diamond-studded attacking quartet that would have encouraged Jorge Sampaoli in his first game in charge.
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Granted Brazil was missing several stars including Neymar, but both sides had a crack in a physical contest in front of 95,569 fans at the MCG that was high-tempo for a friendly.
While Argentina possesses arguably the most outrageous array of attacking talent, a paltry 15 goals in 14 qualifying games leaves them languishing in fifth, which means a playoff.
Lionel Messi and emerging Paulo Dybala’s combination is central to Argentina’s plans under Sampaoli, who spoke about the Barcelona superstar fitting into a system.
With predator Gonzalo Higuain providing the striking anchor and the outstanding Angel Di Maria pacing up and down the left-flank like a marathon runner and providing quality service to boot, Messi and Dybala had license to roam with the midfield three — in a 3-3-3-1 formation — providing the backbone.
Silky Phillipe Coutinho was Brazil’s main attacking outlet while Chelsea’s Willian caused havoc with his explosive pace and Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus carved some top openings in the second half.
Doubt about either teams’ application was dispelled at the glance of the benches.
Sampaoli was on his feet by the touchline for the entire match, constantly directing instructions to his players and riding every shot and tackle as both teams pressed in the first half before backing off.
The jubilant coach raised both arms in the air when Argentina deservedly opened the scoring just before the break.
Di Maria whipped in a well-worked short corner which Nicolas Ottamendi smashing his header against the post before fellow defender Mercado’s disciplined follow up paid off as he tapped it in.
It was a physical half, with Australian referee Chris Beath as busy as any game with tackles flying in from both teams.
Coutinho had Brazil’s best chance in the first half, denied only but a desperate last-ditch tackle from Ottamendi.
While Jesus rounded the keeper and then, with the goal gaping, hit the left post in the 65th minute, with Willian smashing the right post from the rebound.
With Messi missing Argentina’s visit to Singapore, this was Sampaoli’s last hit out with their fulcrum before the decisive qualifier away to Uruguay on August 31.
While the focus was on a functioning attack, the clean sheet was a bonus for Argentina.
Brazil coach Tite, whose side has secured qualification, would have been satisfied with the Thiago Silva-led team’s display.