Argentina can eliminate Brazil from Olympics in Under-23 championships finale
There will be an epic finale to the South American Under-23 Championships on Sunday night.
The tournament qualifies two teams for this year's Tokyo Olympics. Argentina have already booked their spot -- and have the chance, in the closing game, to eliminate their great rivals and the reigning gold medalists Brazil.
The first game of the night pits Uruguay against the hosts Colombia. If there is a winner, then Brazil have only one route to the Olympics -- beating an Argentina side that have won all six of their matches in the competition. Meanwhile, a draw between Colombia and Uruguay would leave the Selecao needing a draw. In these circumstances it is possible that Brazil could sneak through with a one-goal defeat in a high scoring game but the overwhelmingly probable scenario is that Brazil will have to end Argentina's 100 percent record. And if Colombia win their game, Brazil's quest for victory will be even harder. The stadium in Bucaramanga will be cheering for Argentina as a means to help the home side over the line and it promises to be one of those matches that lives long in the memory.
Argentina have some important absences. Hard-running midfielder Nico Capaldo is suspended, as is left winger Agustin Urzi, a man La Albiceleste may find hard to replace. Big centre forward Adolfo Gaich is also banned and could be a big miss. Like a reborn version of former Boca Juniors favourite Martin Palermo, Gaich appears clumsy but is better than he looks. His last-gasp yellow card in Thursday's 2-1 win over Colombia could be significant.
Even so, Argentina can still count on the two star attractions of the competition. One is Brighton-bound attacking midfielder Alexis MacAllister, top scorer so far with four goals. MacAllister strikes the ball extremely well and is a constant threat from set pieces. He has class, vision and the priceless gift of timing his runs into the penalty box and should be a real asset in the Premier League.
Argentina are at their best when MacAllister combines with support striker Julian Alvarez, who is mobile, intelligent and very talented. The pair of them should prove a handful for a Brazilian defence that has performed poorly throughout the competition.
Why have Brazil got themselves in this position? True, they won all their group games, but were clearly in the weaker of the two groups. In the decisive play-off round they have been exposed a bit and have been held by both Colombia and Uruguay. Their squad is full of very promising players, and would seem to have much more depth than that of Argentina.
One explanation is the defence. A huge problem in domestic Brazilian football is the formation of centre-backs. Brazil consistently produces good defenders, but nowadays the better ones are developing abroad. Meanwhile, the domestically-based ones are often uncomfortable when asked to operate in a high line. Their 4-2-3-1 formation often leaves the defence exposed, as the team is open and without a holding midfielder. This should set up a fascinating battle on Sunday. MacAllister's least effective game in the competition came when Colombia deployed the strong, tough Kevin Balanta to mark his space. Brazil are not set up to do something similar.
But they can count on plenty of attacking options. he central midfield duo of Bruno Guimaraes and Matheus Henrique form a dynamic and imaginative engine room -- and there are skilful players ahead of them, although maybe there are too many of the same type.
Brazil has specialised in recent years in producing attackers in wide spaces. Three of them have been playing all at once at this tournament -- Antony on the right, Pedrinho (unhappily) through the middle and Paulinho down the left. They are quick dribblers who can shoot -- but they are all overly-dependent on one foot. Bayer Leverkusen's Paulinho has clearly been working on his left, but remains very right-footed., while Antony and Pedrinho are very left-footed. Playing Antony and Paulinho on their "wrong" wing makes it harder for the team to have width. Those two are usually looking to cut in onto their stronger foot and thus it is slowing the game down. The team are taking too many touches, and are not bringing rangy centre-forward Matheus Cunha into the game enough.
Sunday's game could be a chance for a genuine central attacking midfielder to come into the side -- either Igor Gomes or the Real Madrid-bound teenager Reinier.
Brazil certainly have the attacking resources to cause problems to an Argentina defence which has looked uncomfortable under pressure. Indeed, it is a big day for centre-back Nehuen Perez, who some see as a possible long-term solution for a position which has been a problem for the senior team well over a decade now.
Argentina already have plenty to celebrate. his tournament represents the rebirth of their youth teams. Once so strong, they have been in shambles in recent years, failing to win titles and produce players for the senior side -- one of the reasons for the advanced age of the squad in the dismal Russia 2018 campaign. The Argentines will have even more to celebrate if Perez and company can hold off the Brazilians on Sunday, as they will not only have beaten their rivals but also have eliminated one of the leading competitors for the gold medal in Tokyo.