Brazil boosted after win at Uruguay, Argentina falters
SAO PAULO (AP) The mood is definitely different in South America's two football powerhouses.
While a smiley Neymar celebrated Brazil's outstanding form in World Cup qualifiers wearing an Uruguay shirt given to him by his Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez, a strangely argumentative Lionel Messi refused to shake hands with a linesman after a narrow Argentina win over Chile.
After thrashing Uruguay 4-1 at the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo on Thursday, Brazil will secure its spot in next year's World Cup if it beats Paraguay in Sao Paulo in the next round and Ecuador and Chile, which are fifth and sixth, lose. If that happens, coach Tite's side will be the first country to qualify for the tournament.
Argentina, which was runner-up in the 2014 World Cup, is in a much tougher spot. The unconvincing 1-0 win over Chile in Buenos Aires, after Messi scored from a controversial penalty, moved Edgardo Bauza's side third in the table. A defeat would have left it sixth with only five games to play.
Argentina faces a rested Bolivian team in the altitude of La Paz next week. Most of Bolivia's starting players did not go to Colombia for the 1-0 defeat Thursday.
The last time Argentina won at 3,600 meters high was in 2005. In the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, a squad led by Messi lost 6-1 to the hosts. A defeat in the Andes could mean falling to fifth place.
A few months ago it was totally different world, with Argentina aiming for titles and Brazil lagging sixth. But seven straight wins in the qualifiers under Tite brought confidence back after two early eliminations in the past two editions of the Copa America, lackluster performances and the persistence of the 7-1 trauma against the Germans in its home World Cup in 2014.
''This was more than I had imagined. I still don't have the dimension of how much this team could still grow (until Russia),'' Tite said in a press conference in Uruguay. ''I don't even want to know about the other games and the table. I don't do math, I focus on the performance and this was remarkable because for the first time the team had to react (after trailing).''
Neymar believes that the away victory over second place Uruguay proves that Brazil is already mature and experienced, which should count in Russia.
''This is important for the future. We did not feel shaken after they scored their goal, we knew there was still a lot of time. We have to keep our cool, and that's what we did here,'' Neymar said.
Argentinians cannot start thinking of Russia just yet, but their problems are clear, as a headline of daily Ole suggests. With a picture of Messi pointing to the skies, it reads: ''Without him, we are nothing.''
And there are figures to back that up: Argentina scored 83% of their points with their main man on the pitch, but without him that number falls to 33%.
The Barcelona star did not speak to the press after the match because of the team's boycott to the media. Bauza denied that his team depends on Messi and promised less suffering to fans in the future.
''It was key to win this match. As we have more time to work, we will improve,'' he said after the game at the Monumental de Nunez.
But next Tuesday Brazil will once again be reveling in a party-like atmosphere while Argentina feels the pressure every minute.