Yesterday, in South America’s World Cup 2018 qualifying matches Brazil and Argentina drew 1-1 in Buenos Aires, while Peru won at home 1-0 over Paraguay. Both games began with the observance of a minute of silence to honor those already fallen in the terror attacks on Paris.
The Peru-Paraguay match was a tough affair but a well-played and entertaining match. The rivals from opposite sides of the continent do not have a natural rivalry but the fact that they have always played second fiddle to the top powers of the region has made such matches critical for any smaller nation wanting to progress in confederation-wide play. The thinking is that if they cannot count on earning points against the powerhouses they have to get them against those they are evenly matched with and particular when playing at home.
Jefferson Farfan’s goal at the 20th minute was a shot from inside the left side of the box after a sustained siege on the Paraguayan goal which began on the right and moved to the middle found the opposition well placed to deny progress. The shot was well taken—a low, powerful strike to the near post—but it was a shot goalkeeper Antony Silva should have expected and handled.
Though the match offered several pretty plays and scoring chances the final result was what the hosts needed, and they earned it by outplaying the visitors when it mattered. Both of these teams played a great Copa America 2015 and they will not be pushovers for the bigger boys this year. Any points earned at Asuncion or Lima will be just that, earned.
About 2,000 miles southeast from Lima, in Buenos Aires, Argentine coach, Tata Martino, opted for an ultra-offensive side in his team’s match against a lesser talented Brazilian side. The tactic worked as the Argentines—with Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, and Eber Banega on the pitch—had the lion’s share of possession and created easily twice as many chances as their opponents through the first two-thirds of the match.
Then again, Brazilian coach, Dunga, obliged his archrivals by once again choosing an ultra-defensive line- up which featured Neymar, Willian and the static, and tonight, woefully subpar Ricardo Oliveira, as the only offensive threats. The visitor’s starting team did not feature that world class fullback, out of favor Thiago Silva, the creative Kaka and Oscar or the in-form Hulk, all on the bench, or Bayern Munich standout Douglas Costa, who many thought would finally get his well-earned starting role. With the only offensive options, Willian and Neymar, on opposite sides of the pitch (they first connected on a creditable attack at about the 40th minute), the hosts had little to worry about defensively, so La Albiceleste concentrated on offense.
Martino employed a very simple three-part formula last night. First, go full out on attack. Second, have Mascherano shadow Willian in the Argentine enforcer’s inimitable style. Third, ensure, as early as possible, that Neymar knew the cost of having an inspired performance. The two things the coach did not have to explicitly state as a team tactic were the now common global ones, used by most teams in crucial matches that might not go your way (see the Dutch in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups)—foul incessantly, ensuring the referee has to pick and choose the more egregious if the game were to proceed, and then complain en masse (encircling the ref if necessary) whenever a call did not go their way. Those tactics worked out well too.
The videotape of the match will show that of the first six balls Willan touched five resulted in him immediately assuming a prone position and four were courtesy of Mascherano. That same recording will show that Neymar was stomped on early in the match (coincidentally on his often injured foot). The resulting foul did not earn a nip-it-in-the-bud early yellow and the striker was seen limping and avoiding even contact with the ball for several minutes until he was able to recover. In truth, the now-weary 23-year old got the message loud and clear (both the physical one from the Argentine defense and the ignoring one from the officials) and chose to pick his spots thereafter.
Finally, when it became obvious Dani Alves would have to push up for Brazil to have an attack, Marcos Rojo made sure the defensive winger was fouled repeatedly whenever he attempted any forays past the midfield line. But as was the case for long stretches of the match, Alves was called on most retaliatory fouls while Rojo was seldom sanctioned for the initial one. Those strategically constant complaints were having their effect on the officials, but Alves, a veteran of too many Spanish Football Clasicos, was too savvy to be deterred for long.
With the Brazilian defense increasingly forced to play up to counter the overwhelming possession by the hosts, the Argentines were both in control of the flow of the game and in the enviable position of having increasingly easier counterattacking chances with the defenders out of position. When Ezequiel Lavezzi scored, at the 34th minute mark, it was off a play that had seen Di Maria able to pass into wide open space behind Filipe Luis. With no defensive obstacle for pass-recipient Higuain, he was able to line up a cross that came from the right wing in a straight line past the late arriving Miranda and to the middle of the Brazilian box. With David Luiz forced to go wide to attempt to cover for Luis there was no one in Silva’s customary slot down the middle. With no middle-of-the-goalie’s-box deterrent for Lavezzi’s run, as Luiz arrived late, the Argentine striker had an easy tap-in for the then inevitable Argentina 1, Brazil 0.
The two outstanding issues in the match which remained to be addressed to a conclusion were dealt with in the second half.
Issue one was Dunga’s tactics. A goal down and with nothing to lose, Dunga decided, at the 56th minute, that playing Douglas Costa might be a wise move. Two minutes later, the Brazilian offense, now anchored on the right flank thanks to Alves’ brave forays, sees the winger scoop a cross to the mobile and thus streaking Costa who meets the ball full stride for a header off the crossbar. Midfielder Lucas Lima blasts the rebound from close in past Sergio Romero who did get a hand or two on it. Brazil 1, Argentina 1. Three mobile offensive players trump two, most times. Unfortunately, Brazilian fans will know that Dunga will simply take the resulting score as vindication of his tactics instead of the obvious opposite.
Issue two is reaping the rewards of a game long sowing of the officials’ psyches. With the score tied Brazil’s confidence grew and their possession increased. Argentina, in response, got grittier and fouled more blatantly. At the 81st minute the ref finally penalized Mascherano with a well-earned yellow for a foul that in another match would have earned a red. In retaliation for the call, and to get at Alves, the unrepentant assist man on the Brazilian goal, Ramiro Mori, away from any action, crushed the Brazilian’s planted calf which replays showed bent at an awful angle. But, ironically, the official who had missed that direct-to-red-foul, then felt a pressured need to even the yellow card tallies and thus gifted David Luiz one, at the 86th minute, for a pretty small foul, but all even at three yellows a piece. The Argentines, sensing a favorable trend, went at it with more ferocity and got their wish at the 88th minute when Luiz was sent off for what replays showed was a run-of-play clash on a 50-50 ball, but clearly a non-existent foul on Lucas Biglia, who playacted a horrendous blow. But it was too late for the man advantage to affect the outcome.
These two teams, and eight others, have games to play early next week as the CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 qualifiers heat up.