Players 'not interested' in Brazil v Argentina MCG clash, reveals coach

A few weeks back, Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza was hardly thrilled by the prospect of a trip Down Under for the MCG showdown with Brazil.

Messi Neymar

It's not going to be the mouth-watering Messi vs Neymar clash that fans wanted Source: Getty Images

“Because it comes after the club season,” he said, “the players don’t really want to know about it. They want to go on holiday, they’re planning which beach they’re going to be lying on with their women.  And then you tell them that they have to go to Australia!

“I ran into [Brazil coach] Tite in Europe recently, and I asked him if he wanted to go and play the game. He said that he didn’t.  ‘Ok,’ I told him, ‘let’s play out a 0-0 draw so neither of us gets attacked by our press.’ And we burst out laughing.”

Bauza has less to laugh about now.

His side were already flirting with danger at the time he spoke. Since then they have not only lost to Bolivia and slipped to fifth place in the table – the play-off spot. They have, of course, also lost Lionel Messi, suspended for four games for swearing at a linesman in the 1-0 win over Chile.

The punishment seems harsh, and Argentina hope to halve it. Even so, they still have problems.

Bolivia was the first game of the four. The last two are the home fixtures against Venezuela and Peru, matches they would hope to win even without Messi. But the next one, which he will surely miss, is a crunch visit to Uruguay at the end of August.

Come the end of the campaign, there is no guarantee that Argentina will finish as high as fifth – and a position any lower will mean that they will be watching the World Cup on TV.

In truth, Bauza was put into a difficult position. He was rushed into the job after the resignation last July of Gerardo Martino.

Under Martino, and his predecessor Alejandro Sabella, Argentina had reached three finals in three years (World Cup, Copa America, Copa Centenario) only to lose them all.

But there was little real conception of a team. The side was heavily dependent on two players. The defensive system appeared to be held together with a combination of duct tape and Javier Mascherano. And the attack was dependent on individual flashes of brilliance from Messi.

Bauza is a thoroughly competent club coach in domestic South American football who had never worked at this level before, and had no time to find his feet. He was pitched straight in to eight rounds of World Cup qualifiers.

This MCG game against Brazil – unless he is replaced over the next few weeks – will be the first friendly under his command.

For all of the inconvenience that it entails, then, the Melbourne clash is an invaluable opportunity to edge towards a team capable of functioning as a unit.

But are there any better defenders available to Argentina?  Because the first choice centre back paring of Nicolas Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori do not inspire confidence. They are always picking up cards and have been creaking alarmingly in recent rounds.

And how can it be that a team in theory so rich in attacking resources has scored fewer goals than Venezuela, the team at the bottom of the table.

After last week’s undeserved win over Chile, former international Diego Latorre pointed out that “the midfield is the heart of a side".  It should not be empty.  But that is what keeps happening with Bauza’s team.

Operating with three strikers requires that the ball is played well out of defence, with a circuit that in every action offers three passing options.

“None of this is apparent in the current Argentina side," Latorre said. "There is no capacity for association, no one playing the pass and getting in position to receive the return ball, and as a consequence the strikers are isolated and not participating.”

This is undisputable, and requires urgent attention. Maybe Melbourne can help Argentina get on the right track.

With eight consecutive victories since Tite took over, scoring 24 goals and conceded just 2, Brazil are clearly on the right track.

But therein lies a danger.

The first is superstitious. Historically Brazil have tended to do much better in World Cups when they have gone into the tournament with their own public doubting their capacity to win.

When they have swaggered in on high heels they have come unstuck.  And some of their own press and public are now – prematurely, surely – proclaiming them as the best team on the planet.

With a very similar line up, they are unrecognisable from the outfit that struggled so badly under the ever-snarling Dunga.

Tite has them compact, passing the ball better than Brazil sides have for some time, and with confidence soaring there is an entoxicating mixture of individual talent and collective play.

There is a danger, though, in peaking too soon; or, as the last World Cup made all too evident, in solidifying a line -up too far before the competition.

A year, six months and even a few days before the 2014 World Cup, Brazil could hardly have been more confident.

When they claimed the Confederations Cup a year beforehand Brazil had won over their supporters and found their team.

The hard part, said then-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, had been done.  His similarly experienced coordinator, Carlos Alberto Parreira, declared at the time when the players met up for the competition that Brazil already had one hand on the trophy.

The story of Brazil’s spectacular 2014 failure cannot be explained without reference to this climate. For all their technical deficiencies, their collapse was above all emotional, an inability to cope with a reality that was much tougher than they had allowed themselves to believe.

Tite, then, is anxious to avoid a repeat.

With well over a year to go to the World Cup he cannot afford to believe that his team is ready.

He must take advantage of all available opportunities to look at options – both to gain extra resources and to remind the first teamers that their place in the starting line up is never guaranteed.

Melbourne, then, will not only be the perfect opportunity for Argentina to test their side, but also has a part to play as Brazil build towards World Cup redemption in Russia.

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Published 30 March 2017 at 9:23am
By Tim Vickery