South American giants set for 'super-classic'
This Wednesday, Brazil host the second leg of the modestly entitled 'super-classic of the Americas' against Argentina - an old tradition which has now been brought back.
The first leg in Argentina finished goalless - a result that came as a big disappointment to the Brazilians. With both sides at full strength a draw would be seen as entirely normal.
But for these games only home-based players are considered, and it is here that Brazil thought they were going into the game with a 12th player - the country's economic boom.
Argentina is already at a huge disadvantage in terms of population, 40 million against 195. At the moment there is a big difference in currencies - Brazil's is very strong.
With this in mind, Brazilian football magazine 'Placar' has just published some facts and figures highlighting the financial chasm between clubs on either side of the border.
Even before a new TV deal comes into effect next year, the biggest Brazilian clubs receive nearly four times the TV money paid to Boca Juniors, Argentina's giant.
In terms of sponsorship deals the difference is twice as big. As a consequence, Brazil's clubs can pay much more, and are attracting some high profile Argentines.
According to 'Placar', Ronaldinho at Flamengo is receiving six times more than the biggest star of domestic Argentine football, Boca Juniors' Juan Roman Riquelme.
Ronaldinho (left) and Neymar will be looking to defeat South American rivals Argentina. Photo: AP
There was an expectation, then, that these differences would be reflected on the field when the two sides met in Cordoba. Riquelme and Argentina's other heavyweight, Juan Sebastian Veron were not even there, both missing out through injury.
Brazil, meanwhile, could field Ronaldinho, Neymar and Leandro Damiao, the same frontline used when the full strength side beat Ghana in London earlier this month.
In almost every sector of the field Brazil seemed to have the edge - in goal and in defence, and also with that forward line, though Argentina's Juan Manuel Martinez is an excellent and industrious striker.
Indeed, before he limped off early in the second half, Martinez was the game's outstanding figure. In great part, of course, this was due to his own virtues, his mobility and acceleration and his capacity to identify and exploit a weakness in the opposing defence.
But it was also because he was given a platform to perform by the one area where Argentina were superior, the midfield.
New Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella has some knowledge of Brazilian football - he was assistant coach to Daniel Passarella at Corinthians a few years ago.
Sensing that Brazil could be stifled, he packed the midfield. But not only did he have numbers, he also had clarity, much of it supplied by a team-mate of Martinez at Velez Sarsfield, Hector Canteros.
After the game Ronaldinho praised the way that Canteros had organised Argentina's play from the centre of midfield. Brazil had no equivalent.
Their midfield trio of Paulinho, Ralf and Renato Abreu offered physical strength, but barely a flicker of imagination and no capacity to control the rhythm of the game.
There are obvious dangers in drawing conclusions from a game between two scratch sides who have hardly had time to train together.
But these midfield deficiencies have been there in Brazilian football for a while - the lack of fluidity in their play is the main reason that more recent sides, win or lose, have often been compared unfavourably with the teams of 1958, 70 or 82.
National team coach Mano Menezes has been trying to wean the side off an excessive dependence on the counter-attack and recapture some of Brazil's previous brio. He admits that achievements have so far fallen short of ambitions.
One explanation - the great sides of the past had better, more complete central midfielders.
Good news could be on the way. This year's Brazilian Championship is proving to be the best in years, and not just because more money means stronger squads. As well as individual quality, there are also some interesting collective ideas.
For years in Brazil the flanks have been left free for the forward runs of the attacking full backs. Now, though, teams are coming off 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 to play other systems, variations on 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 with strikers operating in wide spaces.
This means that the full backs have to do more defending, which in turn means that the central midfielders have to take more responsibility on the ball.
One of the stars of the show is Romulo of league leaders Vasco da Gama. Just turned 21, he is a marking midfielder who wins the ball and then gives dynamism to the play, passing and moving forward to participate in the next phase, opening up the field with quick, crisp distribution.
Called up to the Brazil squad, he could make his debut on Wednesday. Menezes admits there is a need for a different approach in midfield for the second 'super-classic'.
For Argentina Martinez will be missing this time, still not recovered from the injury he suffered in the first match.
Sabella has re-enforced his midfield, too, giving a chance to the Brazil-based quartet of central midfielders Pablo Guinazu and Mauro Bolatti and playmakers Andres D'Alessandro and Walter Montillo.
Sabella will surely pack this sector once more. This time will Brazil have the wit and patience to pass their way through?
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week. Here are some from last week's postbag:
Q) Can you tell me what former Bolivian striker Marco Etcheverry is up to these days and how was he seen in South America? He was just before the internet and tv coverage, but I remember his skills being paraded in USA 94, am I correct? And would it be accurate to recall him as a bit of a firebrand?
A) His skills were more paraded on the road to USA 94, when he helped bring about Brazil's first ever defeat in qualification. Come the tournament he was not 100% fit for the opening game against Germany, came off the bench and was promptly sent off for a little off the ball kick.
I'm not sure what US-based readers might think of this, but I wonder if his move to the MLS came too early in his career. I have the impression that standards when the MLS was launched were not as high as today, so perhaps he was not being pushed enough. He was a big star with DC United, but when he came back down to play for Bolivia he looked way off the pace, at a time when he should have been at his peak.
He is now coaching Bolivia's Under-15s, in action soon in the South American Championships.