Neymar has said that he imagines Qatar 2022 as his last FIFA World Cup. It will surely be the final one for Lionel Messi. And, on the evidence of South America’s qualification campaign, the pair are entitled to dream of going out on a high.
Argentina have found their blend. Their unbeaten run now stretches all the way back to the semifinal of the 2019 Copa America, 23 matches ago, and in an impressive 3-0 win at home to Uruguay they gave a demonstration of a team that knows exactly what they are trying to do.
With Lautaro Martinez fit and Nicolas Gonzalez coming in for Angel Di Maria, they fielded the XI that has played the best football over the course of the unbeaten run. Gonzalez plays wide on the left, allowing the midfield triangle — anchored by Leandro Paredes in the middle of Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso — to keep close together, weaving their passing patterns and bringing Messi into the game.
The vital, deadlock-breaking goal was a mixture of fortune and tactics; Messi’s ball into the box was aimed at the diagonal run of Gonzalez. But the bounce deceived Fernando Muslera in the Uruguay goal and the ball bobbled inside the far corner. Soon afterwards, Lo Celso found Messi once more — their understanding is key to the team — and a deflected pass fell to Martinez, whose scuffed shot fell nicely for the arriving De Paul to poke home. Again, there was fortune and tactics — close together, pressing the Uruguayan goal, the Argentine midfield created space and took advantage of the consequences.
The third, in the second half, was another eye-pleasing cameo, with the midfield combining in a counter-attack. In the second phase Messi fed De Paul on the right, and his low centre was turned in at the far post by Martinez.
By this point the game had turned into an exhibition for the Buenos Aires crowd, and more goals could have followed. But the game could have taken a different path. Uruguay came to defend, with three centre-backs, draw Argentina forward and burst into the space. For over half an hour they had little possession but the best of the chances. Left wing-back Mathias Vina was proving a supply line on the counter attack for Luis Suarez, who came close three times. On one of them he produced a wonderfully acrobatic left-footed volley. It deserved a goal, and looked like being one until Emiliano Martinez plunged low to his right to make the block.
Martinez only made his international debut for Argentina in June. It is already impossible to imagine an Argentina team without him. The Aston Villa man is Argentina’s best goalkeeper for decades, sending a sense of security through a defence that does not always inspire total confidence. Goals change matches. Martinez did plenty to ensure that the match-changing goal came at the other end. His emergence is an extra reason to believe that Argentina can be competitive in Qatar.
Brazil have plenty of top-class keepers to choose from. Alisson has been first choice this month. Either Ederson or Weverton, the other keepers used in the campaign, can step in with no loss of quality. After yet another clean sheet, Brazil have conceded just three times in 10 rounds of CONMEBOL qualifiers. And some of that is also down to outstanding centre-back Marquinhos, whose judgement and speed of recovery make defending look easy. While Brazil are defensively tight, they always have a chance against any opposition.
Sunday’s 0-0 draw in Colombia means that they have lost their 100% record, but it also takes them to the magic number of 28 points, a total which has always been good enough for automatic qualification. They lead Argentina by six points. But it could be argued that their old rivals are closer to finding an ideal blend. Brazil coach Tite has been making changes in personnel and formation. The positive spin would be that he is looking at options, the negative that he is not sure of his best side.
The big plus for Brazil from this month’s games has been the emergence of Leeds United winger Raphinha, who, just as he did against Venezuela last Thursday, came off the bench and sparked up the game. Brazil have found a player — a winger with speed and skill as well as vision and set-piece ability. With Antony, another substitute winger, doing well on the left flank, Brazil are full of options in wide positions.
Attacking through the middle is more of a problem, though. Flamengo’s free-scoring Gabriel Barbosa has been given an extended run, but so far has shown no sign of being able to reproduce club form at a higher level. There were signs of an interesting partnership between Neymar and Lucas Paqueta, a development that was hinted at in the recent Copa America. But with Neymar strangely under-par, Brazil were unable to convert control into goals — though credit must be given to another fine display by Wilmar Barrios, the anchorman in a Colombian midfield that often looked as if it was going to be over-run.
Brazil and Argentina, then, moved closer to Qatar. But from Ecuador in third place to Peru in seventh, the five teams behind them in the table all failed to win. Fifth-placed Colombia were the only team among them to avoid defeat. Apart from Argentina, the round’s other winners were the bottom three.
Venezuela were due some luck, and took advantage of errors in Ecuador’s young team to win 2-1. It almost certainly comes too late to save the Venezuelan campaign. But Bolivia, who beat Peru 1-0, and Chile, 2-0 victors over Paraguay, can still dream. Both are at home again in Thursday’s next round, where three more points will pull them into contention.
And so, after round 11 of the campaign, many teams in South America can still consider themselves in with a chance of grabbing a place in Qatar. But Messi, Neymar and their Argentine and Brazilian teammates are entitled not only to the belief that they will be at the World Cup, but also that they can make an impact at the finals.