Contrasting styles for Argentina, Uruguay add intrigue to WC qualifier
An event to kickstart a Uruguay-Argentina 2030 World Cup bid that was to take place Wednesday was postponed because FIFA president Gianni Infantino was unable to be present. That might mean there is plenty of official backing for the idea of celebrating the centenary of the World Cup by going back to the place it was first held.
It also means that Uruguay and Argentina can, for the next few hours at least, put to one side any thoughts of River Plate brotherhood. Because on Thursday night, they are in opposition, with vital World Cup qualification points at stake. As fate would have it, the match is a replay at the same venue of that inaugural World Cup final back in 1930, when in Montevideo's Centenario stadium Uruguay won 4-2.
Oscar Washington Tabarez was not coaching them back then. It just seems like it. He is now in his second spell in charge of Uruguay, which began more than 11 years ago. By the standards of modern football, this is an epic spell -- and one that, given his health problems, will almost certainly come to an end with the conclusion of the current World Cup cycle. It is during this second Tabarez era that Uruguay have returned to the game's top table, coming fourth in the 2010 World Cup, winning the Copa America the following year and unearthing a production line of talent in a succession of successful Under-20 sides.
Argentina, in contrast, have a coach making his competitive debut. Jorge Sampaoli only took over in June and is Argentina's third coach of the campaign. So far, he has been in charge of only friendlies against Brazil and Singapore.
But there is another clear contrast between the pair beyond their experience: Tabarez is cautious -- too cautious, his critics say -- while Sampaoli is not.
When Tabarez took over, he announced that Uruguay sides at all levels would play a 4-3-3 system with wingers. The first time out, in the opening game of the 2007 Copa America against Peru, his team were beaten 3-0. "Reality was too strong for us," he said. Since then, his overriding aim has been to try to ensure that his teams are difficult to play against. Uruguay are happy for the opposition to have more of the ball and look more stylish. Meanwhile, they seek to be effective and are unconcerned if they are not easy on the eye.
Sampaoli sets out to impose his side's game on the opposition, strangling them back in their own half, throwing men forward to create options close to goal. He is capable of pragmatic refinements, as he displayed in his very successful spell in charge of Chile and also last season with Sevilla. But the overall objective is to seize the initiative.
There is one facet of the game, though, in which these two contrasting coaches might have something in common: Can they trust their defensive units?
Uruguay have started leaking goals alarmingly: nine in the past three qualifiers, all defeats, and six more in the two recent friendlies, both lost. There are plenty of reasons, then, to be fearful of Argentina's attacking trident -- Mauro Icardi at centre-forward with Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala just behind -- and there is also Angel Di Maria wide on the left.
This collection of talent will have to strike up an instant understanding, as they have no experience playing together and very little time on the training field. But it would seem clear that Tabarez will seek to protect his defensive line with a phalanx of defensive midfielders. Uruguay's main threat will surely come from the counterattack and the set piece.
These resources will surely worry Sampaoli. Argentina have an embarrassment of riches in front positions -- and a dearth at the back. There is very little time for the new coach to drill his defence on the training ground. It would seem that Argentina will go with a 3-4-2-1 formation. Nico Otamendi would seem a certainty to occupy one of the slots in the back line, but who will play alongside him? Javier Mascherano has been picked as a defender for the first time, which means that the team could miss his bite and organisation in the centre of midfield.
But against a team who are so strong in the air, his lack of height could be a problem. Barcelona get away with it by defending high up the field. Can Sampaoli trust his new, improvised defence to carry out such a risky strategy? The alternative would appear to be Federico Fazio, gangling in the air but slow and vulnerable on the ground.
A fully fit Luis Suarez would be the man to take advantage of such defensive confusion. He seemed to be ruled out after suffering a knee injury on club duty. But he has flown back to Montevideo and is training with the team. He has previously pulled off a surprise by returning from injury earlier than expected and tipping the balance. Three years ago in the World Cup, he sat out Uruguay's opening defeat to Costa Rica and was rushed back to face England, against whom he scored both goals in his team's vital win. Can he do it again? Or might the evening belong to his Barcelona teammate, Lionel Messi?
There is a strong possibility, of course, that the tension of the occasion and awareness of defensive problems will result in a stalemate. But there is also the chance of a scoreline similar to that of the 1930 World Cup final, with either side emerging as the victors. Whatever happens, it promises to add another intense chapter to the dramatic history of one of football's oldest rivalries.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.