Brazil's narrow victory is more worrying than Argentina's defeat
Brazil snatched it right at the end, centre-back Miranda shrugging off Nicolas Otamendi at a corner to glance in the 1-0 winner over Argentina ahead of keeper Sergio Romero. But Brazil boss Tite may well come away from Saudi Arabia a slightly more worried man than Lionel Scaloni, his Argentine counterpart.
The teams are at vastly different stages of development.
Scaloni is a caretaker coach, in temporary charge. The chaos of Argentina's World Cup campaign has forced the FA to think long and hard about the way forward, and they are taking their time before making a definitive choice. In the meantime, Scaloni is renewing the squad. His starting lineup included just four players who went to Russia. And despite the limited training time, in the four games played under Scaloni, with no Lionel Messi and some of the other big names, Argentina have at least looked competent -- a word that seldom applied to their displays under Jorge Sampaoli. Brazil's stoppage-time winner was the first Scaloni's Argentina have conceded.
The scorer, Miranda, was one of a Brazil starting lineup that included 10 of the World Cup squad -- the exception being Barcelona midfielder Arthur. Brazil are at full strength because they have much more short-term urgency. They host next June's Copa America, which kick-starts the next cycle of competitive matches in South America. Many will see this as essentially a warm-up tournament, preparing a side for the next set of World Cup qualifiers. Brazil, though, have to win -- as hosts, as a consequence of their poor recent tournament record and in order to keep Tite in a job.
And he will make the trip back from the Middle East with some cause for concern. His side did not play well, either against Argentina or in the 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Friday. Admittedly, the conditions did not help. It was hot and humid. The game against Argentina was constantly interrupted, the action in Jeddah juddering to a halt with frequent fouls and a drinks break in either half.
Allowing for this, Tite must surely be thinking about the structure of his side, and specifically, the best way to accommodate the enormous talents of Philippe Coutinho. In the World Cup, he was employed as a genuine midfielder, on the left of the central trio. This leaves him able to combine with Neymar. But, as Belgium showed in that fateful quarterfinal, it can mean that the left side is defensively vulnerable.
The response has been to restrict the attacking role of the full-backs in an attempt to balance out the side. But after the Argentina match, the wisdom of this strategy looks questionable; are Brazil losing more than they gain? Can Coutinho really be considered a genuine midfielder? He had a very unhappy time in this game, and on the evidence at Barcelona, he surely looks more comfortable closer to the opposing goal.
There were flashes from Neymar; one glorious, long diagonal pass came close to slipping Arthur behind the defensive line. But the team looked even more dependent than usual on his individual flashes of brilliance; Coutinho was off form, Neymar was unable to establish a relationship with centre-forward Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus was not a success wide on the right -- where the introduction of Richarlison gave the team more thrust.
It will be fascinating to see how Tite builds his side for next month's friendlies, when Brazil face Uruguay in London, and are in the process of fixing up a game somewhere else in Europe against Cameroon.
Argentina, meanwhile, can be extremely happy with the performance at right-back of Renzo Saravia, who came through the test of marking Neymar with considerable credit. Up front, both Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi remain enigmas at international level, yet to produce anything like their best. Striker Lautaro Martinez, who scored a fine debut goal against Iraq on Thursday, produced some touches of class when he came off the bench, and looks like an important part of Argentina's future.
But the national team's big decisions -- the who and the how -- will have to wait until the new coach is named. Until then, Argentina are kicking the can down the road.