Old rivals Brazil and Argentina go head to head for what promises to be the game of the tournament in the opening Copa America semi-final on Tuesday night.
Argentina were the only team to score in a quarter-final stage notable for a series of penalty shoot-outs, and Brazil will have to play much better than their lacklustre showing against Paraguay.
Let’s look at the main talking points ahead of a potentially explosive encounter.
Can Brazil find penetration?
This has been a rather odd tournament for Brazil, who were jeered by their own fans in the opening game against Bolivia before eventually easing to a 3-0 victory, and were later held to goalless draws by both Paraguay and Venezuela but also showed their undoubted potential with a thumping 5-0 victory over Peru.
The cause of Tite’s team has not been helped by injury absences for Neymar and Richarlison, but there is still plenty of attacking quality within the squad’s ranks and established stars Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho are under pressure to deliver vastly improved performances from their below-par showings in the damp squib quarter-final against Paraguay.
The bright spot for Brazil as an attacking force has been the emergence of exciting winger Everton, but the Gremio star has also been guilty of inconsistency in the final third and should probably still be regarded as a potential star in the making rather than the real deal.
So although it’s highly likely that Brazil will enjoy plenty of the ball against an Argentina team which looks increasingly comfortable sitting deep in defence, the big question is whether the hosts will be able to find end product to go with that possession. And after being held scoreless twice in four games, the answer is not a foregone conclusion.
Three up front for Scaloni?
Argentina delivered arguably their best all-round team performance since 2016 in their quarter-final victory over Venezuela, marrying a solid defence with a purposeful attack to create a balanced and well-structured approach which yielded a well-deserved 2-0 victory.
The dilemma facing boss Lionel Scaloni, though, is whether he has enough confidence in his team’s defensive capabilities to maintain the same tactical set-up against the stronger opposition provided by Brazil, with captain Lionel Messi operating behind two out-and-out strikers in the form of Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero.
Considering the attacking licence given to Brazil’s full-backs – Filipe Luis or Alex Sandro on the left and the rampaging Dani Alves on the right – Scaloni will be extremely tempted to tighten up his team’s back line, especially their defensive width, by including an extra midfielder at the expense of one of the forwards.
Alternatively, though, the Argentina boss could conclude that both Martinez and Aguero have been playing too well to be omitted, while clearly Messi is undroppable despite his current poor form, and that Brazil’s penchant to get their full-backs high up the pitch will leave plenty of space for his front trio to exploit. Does Scaloni dare to be bold?
Will Messi find form?
Irrespective of whether Scaloni opts to repeat the same formation he employed against Venezuela or plumps for a more cautious approach, the biggest possible plus for the Albiceleste would be if skipper Messi can return to form.
By Messi’s own admission, this has been a poor tournament for the Barcelona star, who has scored just one penalty in four games and was guilty of regularly squandering possession in the victory over Venezuela while failing to register any shots on target.
Messi has complained about the quality of the pitches in Brazil, comparing the ball to a rabbit due to the uneven bounce which has hindered his efforts to dribble at speed and release instant passes, and to his frustration the turf at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte is also expected to be in a poor shape despite not staging a game for more than a week.
But Messi, on any kind of playing surface, knows that he is capable of producing much greater quality than he has managed so far in Brazil. And with his team finally starting to show signs of developing a decent collective structure around him, he will be operating from a position of greater strength than anyone could have expected. If he can hit top gear, it could be quite a spectacle.
Brazil centre-back Thiago Silva believes the Copa America semi-final is not the right time to admire ‘greatest ever’ Lionel Messi.
The defender showered praise on the Barcelona star but maintained the high voltage fixture between Argentina and Brazil will be free of any admiration for the player.
Silva admitted that Messi has always created problems for him when the two have locked horns at club and international level. But he will be studying all possibilities to stop the 32-year-old from asserting his domestic on the game at Belo Horizonte.
“For me, Messi is the greatest player in history, the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” Thiago said.
“But now, it’s Brazil and Argentina. We’ll leave it to admire him in other games ahead.
“Every time we face each other, whether in the national team or in the Champions League, it’s very difficult to face him.
“No matter how much you study, you will never understand the quality he has and the difference he can make.
“At certain times, he pulls something else out of the hat that you cannot imagine. That’s his difference.
“As a centre-back you have to study all the possibilities. We know he always pulls left, but many times he pulls right.”
Brazil coach Tite labelled Lionel Messi as ‘unstoppable’ ahead of their Copa America semi-final clash against Argentina.
The biggest fixture in international football will see a shaky Brazil side take on an equally vulnerable Argentina on Tuesday night.
Messi – who has scored just one goal in the tournament – has unsurprisingly been kept quiet but Tite is wary of the Barcelona star’s ‘slump’.
The Brazil boss believes Messi is unstoppable and he can only be slowed down by the opposition.
“We spoke not only of the individuality of Argentina. They have grown in collective terms as well,” Tite said.
“The collective enhances individuality. You don’t cancel out Messi, no, you can slow his actions, but you cannot neutralise his actions.
“Just as [Philippe] Coutinho does not neutralise himself, [Roberto] Firmino, David Neres. They will, at some point, be decisive.
“If the fans can bring all the affection they have given us when we arrived at the hotel to the stadium, it will leave me and all the players gratified and strengthened.”