It is one of football's cliches that there is no such thing as a friendly between Brazil and Argentina -- and that even applies if the two South American giants are meeting in Saudi Arabia, as they do on Friday.
But there is extra spice to this particular friendly: next time it is for real. The next FIFA dates, in March, see the start of South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign, the most competitive on the planet. Argentina came very close to missing out on last year's World Cup, and South Africa 2010, while even Brazil flirted with danger in 2002.
The strong probability, of course, is that both of these football giants will be present and correct in Qatar 2022. But that need not apply to the men who pick the teams.The qualification campaign can chew up coaches and spit them out. Argentina went through three coaches on the road to Russia 2018, as did Brazil in 2002. So for Brazil's Tite and Argentina's Lionel Scaloni, these next few days are important. Argentina are due to face Uruguay early next week, while Brazil take on South Korea. They may choose to experiment a little bit in these games. But for the clash of the old rivals in Saudi Arabia, they are obliged to go with the best that they have got -- for the last time before the real stuff starts. And there are reasons for both coaches to be worried.
The teams last met on Brazilian soil on July 2 in the semifinal of the Copa America. There was some controversy about the refereeing on that occasion -- Argentina felt hard done by -- but there was no doubt that Brazil were the better side, and 2-0 was probably a fair reflection of the game. Brazil went on to beat Peru in the final, while Argentina had to settle for third place.
Just over four months later, Brazil are no longer celebrating. In their four post-Copa America friendlies, they have yet to win a game, drawing with Colombia, Senegal and Nigeria and losing to Peru. Manager Tite is coming under fire, and a fifth game without a win would crank up the pressure a notch higher -- and as the coach and players would admit, the team appear to be struggling for the right mix.
Everything instantly fell into place when Tite took over in the second half of 2016. Brazil were in trouble in the Russia qualification campaign and Tite immediately turned it into a victory parade. Key to the success in 2016-17 was midfielder Renato Augusto, a player they have not adequately replaced and one who had the ability to knit the side together. More recently, even when winning the Copa America, they have not always been convincing.
There are doubts about the shape of the side. Tite responded to World Cup quarterfinal elimination by tightening up, using his full-backs as constructors from deep rather than auxiliary wingers -- in his phrase, Manchester City full-backs rather than Liverpool ones. But he has gone with Liverpool centre-forward Roberto Firmino, who has found it all but impossible to reproduce his club form. He is left much more isolated than when he plays for Liverpool, leaving Brazil with a lack of physical presence up front. It will be fascinating to see how Tite rejigs his parts against Argentina.
The risk for Scaloni is a different one. There is no doubt that Lionel Messi was an aid as Scaloni was promoted from inexperienced caretaker to surprise permanent coach. During the Copa America, it was clear that Messi has decided that in the time he has left, he will be the leader of the team. He was unusually vocal -- indeed, he talked himself into trouble, picking up a two-month suspension. But with Messi on board, Scaloni's stock rose -- and his has risen further after the subsequent four games in which Messi has been absent.
Argentina drew with Chile, unexpectedly thrashed Mexico, dug themselves out of a hole to claim a draw away to Germany and then demolished Ecuador. Scaloni is now surrounded by a feel-good vibe -- which could quickly evaporate with a heavy defeat to Brazil.
Messi is back -- both a solution and a potential problem. The solution is obvious -- the Barcelona genius is one of the greatest ever to play the game. The potential problem is the temptation to front-load the team.
During the Copa America, Argentina ended up playing with Messi plus two strikers, Sergio Aguero and Lautaro Martinez. It meant that they were living dangerously. Aguero worked hard trying to help the midfield, but it did leave them open. Argentina's long-standing defensive problems -- lack of pace at the back, question marks over their goalkeepers -- have not gone away. In that semi-final against Brazil in July, they could not hold the Brazil attack when it ran at them at full speed. So what will Scaloni do now?
Along with Messi, Aguero is also back in the squad. Lautaro Martinez has been in fine form, and is shaping up as the long-term centre-forward for Albiceleste. Will Argentina play all three together once more and take the risk of having their defence exposed? Or might Sevilla's Lucas Ocampos, so successfully introduced last month, come in on the flank to give them a tighter 4-4-2?
It is a big decision. There are no points at stake. But what happens on Friday will set the tone for when the real stuff starts, because it is a long road from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.