MONTEVIDEO: Lionel Messi and Neymar will be absent as Brazil and Argentina set out on the road to Russia — and redemption — when South American qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup kick off on Thursday (Friday in Manila).
Injured Messi and suspended Neymar are just two of a galaxy of stars who will be missing as the long journey to Russia 2018 begins. Uruguay will be without Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani while Colombia’s James Rodriguez is also injured.
Brazil and Argentina, the two superpowers of South American football, launch their respective qualifying campaigns still smarting from disappointing performances in the Copa America, which saw Chile lift the title on home soil.
Brazil’s Copa America ended in defeat to Paraguay in the quarter-finals, a loss that deepened the sense of gloom surrounding the Selecao, still bearing the scars of their humiliating World Cup exit to Germany in 2014.
Argentina’s campaign meanwhile ended in a penalty shoot-out against Chile in the final, shattering Messi and the Albiceleste’s hopes of winning a first major tournament since 1993.
Those twin setbacks provide the sobering backdrop to Thursday’s opening round of fixtures, where Brazil face a daunting trip to Santiago to face Chile while Argentina meet Ecuador in Buenos Aires.
But while Copa America form suggests Chile are favourites, Brazil head into their game with history squarely in their corner.
Brazil have suffered one solitary defeat to Chile during World Cup qualifiers, a 3-0 loss during the campaign to reach the 2002 tournament.
In 14 meetings since that defeat, Brazil have won 12, drawn two, lost none.
“Every game has its own history, and times change, but the fact that we do well against Chile whenever we play them has its advantages,” said Brazilian veteran Kaka, drafted into manager Dunga’s squad to replace the injured Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho.
Brazil’s most recent win over the Chileans came in March, a 1-0 friendly victory in London which followed last year’s World Cup second round win.
“Any match against Chile is difficult, but we are determined to win,” Brazil defender David Luiz said shortly after arriving in Chile.
One critical factor for Brazil could be the absence of suspended captain Neymar, who was banned after being sent off in a stormy Copa America battle with Colombia in June.
Yet Brazil have showed no sign of tension during the build-up, holding relaxed open training sessions before large crowds of journalists and fans.
Chile by contrast have drawn a veil over their preparations, with coach Jorge Sampaoli restricting press access to training to just 15 minutes each day at the team’s Juan Pinto Duran complex.
“Now we start a new chapter; together we can do it,” Chile captain Claudio Bravo wrote on Twitter in a message to fans this week.
Argentina meanwhile will get a taste of life without their superstar captain Messi when they take on Ecuador in Buenos Aires.
Messi, who was scapegoated in some quarters for another Argentinian tournament failure in the Copa America, is sidelined for the game after suffering a serious knee injury while playing for Barcelona last month.
Missing Messi no excuse
Javier Mascherano, who will captain Argentina in Messi’s absence, called on the squad not to use his Barcelona team-mate’s injury as an excuse.
“It’s always better to have Messi,” Mascherano said.
“But we are not going to have him and we have to try and turn that into a positive and not use it as an excuse.”
In other matches Thursday, Uruguay will have to grapple with the absence of Suarez and Cavani as they face a daunting trip to the thin air of La Paz to face Bolivia.
Colombia, meanwhile, who face Uruguay in their second match next week, meet Peru in the port city of Barranquilla without Real Madrid star James Rodriguez, meaning the attacking burden is likely to fall on out-of-form Chelsea striker Radamel Falcao.