Brazil return to Belo Horizonte hoping to banish 7-1 demons
Win over struggling rivals Argentina would help heal wounds of Germany thrashing
Neymar and Brazil return to Belo Horizonte for the first time since their 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany in the 2014 World Cup. Photograph: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
Brazil v Argentina, World Cup qualifier, Belo Horizonte, Thursday 11.45pm (GMT)
It has been 28 months, but finally Brazil will return to the site of their greatest trauma. Their World Cup qualifier against Argentina on Thursday will be their first game in Belo Horizonte since the 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final. Nothing will ever erase that horror but a victory over Argentina would make the ghosts loom less menacingly over the Mineirão in future – particularly if it adds to the growing fear in Argentina that the country may not qualify for the next World Cup.
“There’s no way to escape it,” said Paulinho, who came off the bench in the 7-1 and is likely to start on Thursday. “But football gives you the chance to rewrite history. We’re not going to reverse what happened, but we can leave a good impression this time around.”
Argentina also have their memories of Belo Horizonte from 2014. It was where Alejandro Sabella’s squad was based during the tournament. Last time they were in the city they were preparing to play in the World Cup final. Twenty-eight months on, they return having lost not only that game but two Copa América finals, lying sixth in their World Cup qualifying group, outside even the play-off spot.
If it is not quite a crisis yet, with eight qualifying games to play and three teams within a point’s reach, it is not far from being one. The coach, Edgardo Bauza, who succeeded Gerardo Martino in August, held emergency talks with his squad on Tuesday, urging them to be honest with each other, not to hold back. He has admitted the possibility of failing to qualify for Russia is a concern.
Clearing the air may help, but there is an obvious problem: just as the Argentina of the late 80s and early 90s became “Diego-dependent”, so this side are Leo-dependent. With Lionel Messi, they have taken nine points from three games in qualifying; without him they have picked up just seven in seven. Argentinians used to mock Brazil for the way everything to do with the national side revolved around Neymar; the reasons for their reliance on one superstar may be different but the symptoms are the same.
“I think first you have to reduce the space of all the players, not only Messi, and then when he receives the ball, just block the angles of his passes,” said the Brazil midfielder Renato Augusto. “This is something we worked on a lot with Neymar. So our aim is, as much as we can, to try to minimise his chances to shoot or pass to team-mates.”
Which is true, but it is also ridiculous. This is an Argentina side whose problem even six months ago was an embarrassment of riches: how did you fit in Messi, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel Di María, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore, Paulo Dybala, Érik Lamela? Such is the depth of talent, the last three of those aren’t even in the current squad. To take such riches and make a side dependent on one man is a desperate failure of leadership.
Agüero’s tentative performance against Paraguay, culminating in a missed penalty, spoke of how confidence has leached from the side as the possibility grows that this most gifted of generations will not end a trophy drought that stretches back to 1993. Agüero has spoken of his gratitude to Bauza for publicly backing him after the Paraguay game. Bauza is the inheritor rather than the cause of Argentina’s problems, which stretch far beyond whoever happens to be coach.
He coaxed Messi out of international retirement and has had him available for just one game since, the 1-0 win over Uruguay in September. Bauza is noted for creating teams that are well-organised, hard to break down and not necessarily thrilling. It may be rather easier to justify that sort of approach against a resurgent Brazil, and the expectation is that he will field a 4-4-2 with a narrow midfield and the two banks of four sitting very deep to try to deny space to Neymar and Philippe Coutinho.
Even the fact that both are likely to play underlines the change since Tite replaced Dunga following the group-stage exit from the Copa América in June. His vision is much less insular, his approach far more modern and expansive than that of his predecessors. There’s still a long way to go in tackling the decadence of Brazilian football culture but four wins in four games under Tite’s management (plus an Olympic gold achieved on his watch if not under his direct supervision) is a promising start.
Their main problem is the absence of Casemiro, who offers balance at the back of a largely aggressive midfield. He will probably be replaced, as he was in the last two qualifiers, by Fernandinho, the only player likely to be involved who started the 7-1.
What’s striking, though, is how the momentum has shifted since the Copa América. Brazil’s trauma at the Minerão is the backdrop but it’s Argentina now who are locked in a cycle of introspection.