Gabriel Jesus's injury gives Tite, Brazil a centre-forward dilemma vs. Uruguay
Both Brazil and Uruguay will be without their leading centre-forwards in Thursday's top of the table clash in South America's World Cup qualification campaign. The current leaders in qualification are missing Gabriel Jesus, who is injured, while second-place Uruguay are unable to select Luis Suarez, who is suspended.
Which team is the biggest loser?
In the case of Uruguay, they will be without a player of undoubted world class. Suarez is their all-time top scorer, and a strong candidate to be considered the best current centre-forward in the game. It's obvious that they are not the same team in his absence but they can count on a top class replacement. Without Suarez, in-form Edinson Cavani can play in his favourite role as an out-and-out centre-forward without having to drop so deep and become an auxiliary midfielder. Moreover, in recent months Uruguay have grown accustomed to being without Suarez, who has missed a number of games through both suspension and injuries.
Suarez's absence was keenly felt in the last World Cup. He missed the first game though injury and Uruguay fell to Costa Rica. He came roaring back to inspire the team to victory over England, picked up a long suspension in the following win over Italy and was missing as Uruguay made a tame exit against Colombia. He has sat out both recent Copa Americas: he was still suspended from the 2015 version in Chile and injury prevented him from taking the field last year in the USA. And he was still suspended for the opening four rounds of the current World Cup qualification campaign, when Uruguay put together three wins and a narrow defeat away to Ecuador at the altitude of Quito.
Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, then, is entitled to believe that with Cavani supported by the tricky Diego Rolan, he has the tools to cause Brazil some problems, especially as his priority will probably be to cover up and play on the counter-attack. He may be concerned that his vastly experienced goalkeeper Fernando Muslera is also suspended for Thursday's game, but Martin Silva seems to be a thoroughly capable deputy.
Perhaps surprisingly, Brazil cannot count on the same strength in depth to replace Gabriel Jesus.
For a few years now, centre-forward has been something of a problem position. Still just 19 years old, Gabriel Jesus was a gamble when new coach Tite promoted him into the starting line up last September. He had played two very poor games there at the start of Brazil's Olympic campaign before being switched to a position wide on the left, from where he could cut in onto his stronger right foot. Yet Gabriel Jesus quickly proved to be Tite's great triumph. In six games he scored five goals and also chalked up some assists, dovetailing nicely with Neymar and showing the versatility of his talent.
In his absence, there is no like-for-like replacement. Roberto Firmino of Liverpool is probably the closest, allowing Brazil to take advantage of his club understanding with Phillippe Coutinho. Firmino, though, does not offer quite the same penalty area threat. And so even though Luis Suarez is, for the moment, a better, more consolidated and complete centre-forward than Gabriel Jesus, it is arguable that Brazil's loss in Thursday's match is greater than Uruguay's.
But there is another way of looking at the balance sheet. Those six consecutive wins that Tite's men have put together have carried the team from one situation to another; before Tite took over, Brazil were lying sixth in the table and looking in real danger of missing out on the World Cup. Now they are virtually qualified. With six rounds to go, they have 27 points and in previous campaigns, a total of 28 have always been enough.
Things have gone wonderfully well for Brazil's new coach: if anything, almost too well. Tite's team have yet to undergo the true test of any side: how they react to going to a goal behind. Some of his players can be petulant in such situations; how will they react as a group? So far in this campaign Uruguay, with or without Suarez, have a magnificent home record: six games, all wins, with 16 goals scored and just one conceded.
Brazil's priority is no longer simply getting through to Russia. Now they should be looking to prepare a team for Russia, and that team can grow still further in adversity. Perhaps even Tite will not be disappointed if Uruguay get the first goal on Thursday. He can reflect on the words of Joe Pesci's Joey LaMotta to his brother, Robert de Niro's Jake, in the classic film "Raging Bull." -- "There's no way you can lose. Even if you lose, you still win."
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.