Kaka is back for Brazil – a late replacement after Phillippe Coutinho pulled out injured. But captain Neymar will not be present when Brazil begin their 2018 World Cup qualification campaign away to Chile on Thursday night.
Predictably, the late attempt to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland drew a blank, so Brazil will take the field without the man who has scored 11 of their 30 post-World Cup goals, and had a hand in setting up many of the others.
But Neymar may not be the most significant absentee when Brazil take the field in Santiago against the recently crowned champions of the continent. The injury to Chile’s midfielder Charles Aranguiz might prove at least as important. The versatility and lung power of Aranguiz have been vital to the way that coach Jorge Sampaoli has been constructing his team.
Sampaoli’s Chile won the Copa America on home ground three months ago when they overcame Argentina on penalties. Going into the tournament, it seemed that the coach was expecting a final against Brazil. With their strength of their counter-attacking game, Brazil have in recent times got the better of the pro-active Chile, sitting back and picking them off on the break.
A friendly between the two sides in London at the end of March was used by Sampaoli as a kind of laboratory. And despite the 1-0 defeat, Chile’s coach flew home very happy with what he had seen. “When we played Brazil in a friendly in Canada in 2011,” he told local journalists, “they created 11 chances. When we met last year in the World Cup they had six. This time they only had one chance.”
The difference was in the way that Aranguiz had been deployed. Normally, he loves to link up with the attack, often bursting behind the strikers and getting into the opposing penalty area – the type of swashbuckling play that brought him two goals in the Copa group game against Bolivia. But against Brazil he played a much more cautious game, concentrating on blocking the spaces and stopping the opposition counter-attack at source.
Even though the sides did not meet in the Copa America, that friendly in March turned out to be useful practice for the tournament. In the final Aranguiz once more played a defensively minded game, focusing on isolating Lionel Messi from his team-mates. Chile, then, were tighter defensively, but lacked their usual presence in the opposing penalty area. The game, not surprisingly, ended in stalemate – but one which had taken place on Chile’s terms, sending them into the penalty shoot out with morale high.
Morale would be higher now if Aranguiz was around to cope once more with the Brazilian counter-attack. But he is kept out by a serious injury suffered in one of his first training sessions after joining Bayer Leverkeusen. What will Chile do without him? Sampaoli is unlikely to repeat the line up he used in last month’s warm up friendly at home to an experimental Paraguay side.
On that occasion midfield anchorman Marcelo Diaz was flanked by two attack minded colleagues, Mathias Fernandez and Felipe Gutierrez. The latter scored twice – but Chile had to come from behind to win 3-2 against opponents lacking the speed on the break of the Brazilians, even without Neymar.
How, then, will Jorge Sampaoli set up his team for Thursday night’s match? It is the most intriguing question of the most fascinating match in the first round of South America’s marathon World Cup qualification campaign.