The countdown to Qatar begins now. In almost exactly 12 months the opening matches of the 2022 World Cup will be taking place, while today Uruguay and Argentina meet in the first of six remaining qualifiers (plus, of course, the postponed clash with Brazil still awaiting FIFA resolution) which will determine the five South American teams who will represent their region at the global football extravaganza. The path for some, of course, is rather smoother than for others.
Lionel Scaloni's Albiceleste troops are on a roll, winning four of their five fixtures following July's thrilling Copa América success to all but secure a qualifying berth. Victory over Uruguay in Peñarol's Estadio Campeón del Siglo would leave them 12 points clear of their fifth-placed neighbours and rivals and, barring an unprecedented meltdown in the final stretch, free to start looking ahead to the finals.
Uruguay, meanwhile, are in an unenviable situation. Heavy defeats in their last two games against Argentina and Brazil have sent them tumbling down the standings and they now look set to form part of a dogfight involving seven different nations still in for a realistic chance of taking one of the three spots behind the two comfortable front-runners.
As the Celeste flounder, pressure has grown on their veteran coach. Indeed, widespread reports in October suggested that Óscar Tábarez would be removed from his post, before eventually being confirmed for at least another round of tough qualifiers. “I won't talk about the specific topic because I have a lot more important things to think about,” ‘El Maestro’ told reporters this week in typically gruff fashion. “Good results are what often put things in their place.”
The comparisons between the two men who will be on opposing benches tonight are intriguing. Lionel Scaloni at 43 is more than three decades Tábarez's junior, and was just 10 when he first took over the Uruguay job in 1988. The Uruguayan's coaching CV spans 40 years, 12 different posts and four World Cups, while Scaloni's only experience prior to the Argentina job was a short spell as part of the Albiceleste backroom staff during Jorge Sampaoli's ill-fated tenure.
Both men, however, have had to undertake a similar challenge in recent years, renewing an established national team and bringing through fresh blood to replace old warhorses, be they Javier Mascherano or Diego Pérez, who had done their country proud over the years. Scaloni, despite the often justified criticism he faced particularly prior to the Copa over his tactical naivete, has so far made a better fist of that job, transforming Argentina's prospect and perhaps most importantly instilling a joyful team spirit that has captured everyone from rookie debutants to the incomparable Lionel Messi, who gave his side a boost this week with a rapid recovery from injury that will allow him to line up in Montevideo.
Tábarez similarly retains unyielding respect from his charges, but that has not always carried over into positive results. Particularly uncomfortable has been the transition from a characteristically dour, hard-tackling, uncompromising style typified by players like Pérez and the great Diego Lugano to a more flowing set-up that relies more on possession than bloodthirsty tackling. Indeed, one of the most repeated criticisms Uruguay faced after going down 3-0 to Argentina in October was the lack of fouls and cards accrued by the visitors, clearly a sign that the infamous Garra Charrúa has become regrettably blunted.
One would think that in front of their own fans and with that example in mind the Celeste will not be in a mood to take any prisoners today, and that Messi in particular will be closely watched. Argentina will nevertheless look to control the ball and tempo right from the very start and, with another huge clash at home to Brazil looming on Tuesday, will be keen to keep their brilliant run going and take one more step towards the promised land of Qatar.