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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Without Lionel Messi, 'parking the bus' may be Argentina's best tactic against bitter rivals Brazil

Scaloni may have made the remark in jest, but the caretaker manager may be wary that a bruising defeat in Saudi Arabia could shatter fragile morale

An Argentina fan wearing a Lionel Messi mask during the match against Iraq at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters
An Argentina fan wearing a Lionel Messi mask during the match against Iraq at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Reuters

It was intended as a light-hearted joke, delivered with a smile, but the reply given by Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s interim manager, to a question about how he would approach Tuesday’s friendly against Brazil was not greeted with widespread mirth back at home. “We’ll put a bus in front of the goalkeeper,” Scaloni grinned, “and just defend."

The South American superclasico has been transported to Jeddah, where the temperatures are high and the shadows long as a wounded, brittle Argentina take on a Brazil in apparently much better health, four months after both suffered disappointing exits from the World Cup. Argentina went out in the last 16, against the eventual winners, France; Brazil departed at the quarter-final stage, eliminated by bronze-medallists Belgium.

In effect, the difference in underachievement from two heavyweights amounted to just 90 minutes. Yet the respective soul-searching, post-Russia, has been very distinct. Many Argentines are still far too edgy and gloomy to be amused by their caretaker coach jesting about parking the bus to stymie Brazil's superior firepower.

After Russia, Brazil kept their manager, Tite, acknowledging that his leadership had cultivated a momentum, hauled the national team back from the lows of 2014, when Brazil were beaten 7-1 at home by Germany in a World Cup semi-final.

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Read more:

Juan Antonio Pizzi: Game against Iraq 'of great importance' to Saudi Arabia

Tite: 'Brazil versus Argentina is never a friendly'

In pictures: Neymar's Brazil make heavy work of beating Saudi Arabia in friendly

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After Russia, Argentina promised a revolution. Their tournament had been anarchic, with a mere four points from their group games, wholesale team changes match to match and something resembling a managerial coup, in which senior players all but took over some of Jorge Sampaoli’s decision-making. Sampaoli, to nobody’s surprise, was relieved of his duties in the aftermath. Captain Lionel Messi, with studied vagueness about his future, informed the country’s football federation he would be taking time off from international duty.

Taking a break may have helped restore Messi’s brilliance in the jersey of Barcelona, but, as ever, the fact he is instantly back at his goal-per-game best with his club extends the frustrations of his compatriots. To the enduring question "Why can’t Messi be as consistently brilliant for his country as for Barcelona?" is now added another: "When might he make his comeback for the national team?"

"He’s the best player in the world, so we hope to have him back,” Scaloni said, not specifying a date. “In the meantime we have to be together as a team, be hard to beat.”

Interim coach Lionel Scaloni is missing several established players for the match against Brazil at King Abdullah Sports City. Reuters
Interim coach Lionel Scaloni is missing several established players for the match against Brazil at King Abdullah Sports City. Reuters

The caretaker has been in charge for three unbeaten friendlies so far, a goalless draw against Colombia sandwiched by comfortable wins over Guatemala and, last week, Iraq. Tuesday will be far harder. He may not be planning to "park the bus" explicitly against Brazil but Scaloni, temporarily promoted from coaching the Under 21s, is wary he is without a number of his worldliest players, and that a bruising defeat could shatter fragile morale.

As for who will take over from Scaloni, as Argentina's fifth manager in as many years, there is little clarity, a symptom of the problems the Argentina federation are having in restoring the prestige of their national team. The ideal candidates on a wish-list - the former Argentina players Diego Simeone, of Atletico Madrid; Mauricio Pochettino, of Tottenham Hotspur - are not inclined to exchange their commitments to their European clubs for a troublesome post, even less so when they see Argentina's leading clubs have turned dismissive of the national team's needs.

The lead-up to the showdown in Saudi Arabia was marked by the apparent refusal of River Plate and Boca Juniors, the Big Two of Buenos Aires, to make available four or five footballers who Scaloni would have called up, citing injuries the federation are sceptical of. Boca and River are involved in the Copa Libertadores semi-finals next week. The suspicion is their managers wanted their players spared a long trip to the Middle East because of that.

Lautaro Martinez was one of four scorers in Argentina's win over Iraq. EPA
Lautaro Martinez was one of four scorers in Argentina's win over Iraq. EPA

Scaloni, as a temporary coach, could not exert the authority to persuade the players concerned.

To take on Brazil he has no Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain or Angel di Maria. They were left out of the tour party to give match time to forwards who will not be into their mid-30s by the time of the Qatar World Cup in 2022.

Nicolas Otamendi, the experienced Manchester City defender, is in Jeddah, to marshall an otherwise inexperienced defence against Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, and probably Roberto Firmino.

Up front for Argentina, a weight falls on the young shoulders of the gifted Paulo Dybala, who a year ago unwisely remarked that playing alongside Messi was “challenging” - by which he meant it could be tactically demanding. Dybala, 24, has since had to adjust his club game to the arrival at Juventus of Cristiano Ronaldo, another tactical challenge.

The so-called "Jewel" of Argentina football might yet benefit for eking out his best role in the long shadow of the game's two megastars. His country probably needs him to.